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January 11, 2016 5 to Watch in 2016

Zupkus hopes for windy CT energy future

HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon BNE Energy CEO Gregory Zupkus stands in front of one of two BNE turbines in Colebrook.

As vehicles meander around a turn going west down Route 44 where Winchester meets Colebrook, the view of the road's next peak is suddenly pierced by the tallest structure this side of Hartford.

The 2.85-megawatt General Electric wind turbine, 30 stories tall at the hub of its rotating blades, which reach to nearly 45 stories at the tips, is one of two turbines at Connecticut's first commercial wind farm, developed by BNE Energy. The third has been approved, and could be built in 2016.

Turned on in October, the two turbines sit atop Flagg Hill, which has a winding residential street climbing a portion of it. A sign in a neighbor's yard — remnants of a recently concluded three-year legal battle that BNE won — demands in red letters: “No industrial wind turbines.”

The $23 million Wind Colebrook South project is significant because it's the first in a state that has been slow to adopt wind energy. Additionally, the three-year legal battle that led to its approval — capped by a state Supreme Court decision in the fall of 2014 — opens the door to more wind projects that could reveal themselves this year.

With the Colebrook turbines now generating enough electricity to power every house in town, BNE CEO Gregory Zupkus, 53, said he's changed gears.

“Right now, it's about keeping these running, working with GE on managing that aspect of it, paying our bills, creating revenue, and making this wind project successful,” Zupkus said.

In 2016, the third Colebrook South turbine, which would be built further from the road, is an immediate priority. Zupkus and BNE Chairman Paul Corey — lifelong friends and business partners since 2006 — plan to bid on an expected request for proposals from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection that would lead to another purchase agreement for the power the turbine would produce.

A second three-turbine project, Colebrook North, which would be sited a mile down Route 44, has received most of the necessary approvals. But Zupkus said that project may not move forward in 2016.

“We're still on hold,” he said. “We haven't made a decision.”

Colebrook South received $2.8 million in financing from the Connecticut Green Bank. Webster Bank provided the bulk of the project financing ($12.1 million), according to the Green Bank.

BNE started site work in Colebrook in late 2013, in time to qualify for a federal tax credit that expired last year. Congress last month voted to extend the credit through 2020, which negates the need to rush the third Colebrook South turbine, and will benefit future projects.

“It will be a boon to wind development in New England,” said Corey, who predicted other developers could propose wind projects in Connecticut this year.

BNE has already set its sights on a 20-megawatt wind farm in the state. Zupkus would only reveal that he and Corey have identified 5,000 acres approximately 15 miles from the Flagg Hill site that could have as many as nine turbines.

“They'll be buried in the forest, so you're not going to have neighbors that are too close,” Zupkus said.

They would need to get the project through the Connecticut Siting Council, which now has detailed wind-power regulations, thanks in part to the regulatory process and legal fight surrounding the Colebrook development. Crafted after a three-year moratorium on wind power enacted by the legislature, the regulations govern things like turbines' distances from homes and limits on size.

BNE's Colebrook projects were grandfathered in, but Zupkus said the regulations will be a benefit because they give BNE a clear roadmap of how to proceed on future projects.

“Now it's black and white,” he said.

An engineer by training, with degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wentworth Institute of Technology, Zupkus started his career making radar systems for defense contractor Unisys Corp., before moving on to technical and external affairs roles for Southern New England Telephone Co., which has been sold several times since 1998, and is now owned by Frontier Communications.

Zupkus' hobbies include skiing with his family and training for triathlons, which he has been running for 25 years. He plans to compete in his first Ironman triathlon next year in New York.

He lives in Prospect with his wife, Republican state Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, and their two daughters, ages 14 and 8, whom they adopted from China.

Corey, who is an energy attorney and former executive director of the predecessor agency to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, said he and Zupkus' varied backgrounds are an asset to BNE's business.

“To accomplish everything you need to do to get a project like this built you need a variety of skills,” Corey said. “I think that's what makes us effective.”

See the others selected as 5 to Watch in 2016.

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