P&Z Commission greenlights new Norwalk High School plan

Gets an earful about solar energy, Net Zero

Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo explains renewable energy issues, Wednesday at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. — Plans for the new Norwalk High School were unanimously approved by the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission after a detailed presentation about renewable energy options and the strategies chosen to heat and cool the building.

Wednesday’s vote came two weeks after Diane Lauricella, an environmental activist and Norwalk resident, argued emphatically during the public hearing that the new high school needed to have more solar on the site. Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Lou Schulman resisted reopening the public hearing Wednesday, saying that he felt the presentation was more “clarification” than “new information,” but was advised that not doing so might result in an appeal of the approval.

Lauricella was the only citizen to speak; Schulman stopped her after about 10 minutes, saying her comment at that point was “not relevant to this conversation.”

The City is going to make every effort to install solar and energy efficiencies in the new school, but the decision rests with the Common Council and isn’t under P&Z’s purview, Attorney Adam Blank said at the beginning of the presentation.

State Statutes require all new schools to meet State’s High Performance Building Standards, aligned with LEED Silver standards as established by the U.S. Green Building Council, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said.

“It’s not arbitrary thing,” he said. “… It’s not something that we have a choice.”

A Powerpoint slide explaining heating systems available for the new Norwalk High School project.

Adam Ducki of Van Zelm Engineers explained the choices that have been made for the school: in part, “a combination of the variable refrigerant system, or VRF system, with heat recovery in conjunction with an energy recovery ventilator for the breathing air of the school.”

For larger spaces like auditoriums and gyms, rooftop units with direct expansion or DX electric cooling, and high efficiency, gas heating are proposed. In the natatorium, direct expansion units are expected and will “reuse the heat rejected from the cycle to then temper the water of the pool as kind of a free reheat situation.”

It’s likely that possibilities will change by the time the school is built, but estimates indicate that 2,200 solar panels would fit on the roof and provide an average of about 1075 kW of energy, Ducki said. An identical amount could be installed on a car port with an average of about 1055 kW of energy collected.

“So when we look at that as a total based on a 330,000 plus-or-minus square foot building, hours used for typical schools about 2500, average loading of the buildings about 60%, kW per hour annually consumed for energy consumed for this building would typically be about 4 million kilowatt hours,” Ducki said. “Parking Lot solar gives us alone, about 1.2 million kilowatt hours of energy that can be collected. And the roof PV give us another 1.3 million, which gives us a total, potentially of about two and a half million kilowatt hours. This equates to about 60 to 64% of the total energy usage in the building.”

The car port would provide 30%, the roof would provide 30%, he said. Currently, the pricetag for construction is about $6.5 million.

The car port would take about 18 years to pay back the construction cost, while for the roof it’s 12 to 13 years, Ducki said.

This would be done by a solar developer, who would evaluate the return on investment. The City would lease the equipment, Lo said.

“One of the reasons why a lot of people will install solar is there are some tax benefits to doing it, and that makes it economically feasible. Because the municipality is essentially tax exempt, it doesn’t share in those benefits,” Blank said. “…Every penny associated with the solar, the City pays for. It’s not like the state’s going to pay for 80% of the solar improvements.”

“When we spend money for solar system, we actually take money away from providing educational programming spaces and things like that,” Lo said.

A schematic for the new Norwalk High School solar roof.

Lo said President Biden’s economic initiative plan includes a provision for municipalities to tap into tax credits. He’s researching it.

On the other hand, prices fluctuate. Cranbury School plans estimated $90 per kilowatt hour incentives but a new bidding process instead features a $52 per hour incentive, Lo said. Cost savings were projected at $300,000 over 20 years but now it looks like $200,000.

Lo described these decisions as a balancing act of costs versus rewards. Getting Norwalk High School up from 60% energy production from solar to a Net Zero condition could be cost prohibitive.

“It’s not every building, every project, has the ability to achieve that,” Lo said. Suburban areas have open land to install solar panels but Norwalk does not. Norwalk High School is a two story project and therefore has less roof space.

The school district is concerned about possible vandalism to a roof solar system and security concerns, Lo said.

The Council Land Use and Building Management Committee “carefully considers” energy efficiency and conservation measures on every building, Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) said. “We are committed to incorporating these energy efficiencies any way in all respects that we can.”

A rendering of the planned new Norwalk High School.

Blank, at the beginning of the presentation, said comments made two weeks earlier during public commentary were “disappointing” and “unfounded” “personal attacks on Mr. Lo.”

Schulman said the “ad hominem attacks” on Lo and other staff members “were very disturbing” to the Commission as well. “I’m not going to permit speakers to behave in that manner again. Should that happen, we will cut the speaker off.”

Lauricella criticized the presentation as not including “green infrastructure and other green measures that I think could be enhanced.” She asked if battery storage had been considered, as Lo had mentioned the school’s extra purpose of serving as emergency shelter and the ensuing need for a generator.

She presented Net Zero options four years ago, she said. “I as a good citizen has been attempting to get the city to look at this for years.”

Schulman told her she was “going over old history.”

Lauricella said she was reacting to a memo posted by Lo three days earlier, therefore she was addressing new material that is “not completely true.”

She said, “I think the city’s making a lot of good efforts. But it’s not quite as rosy a picture because of what you’ve been explained to this today. I’m just asking, why don’t we have battery storage mentioned?”

She eventually suggested Commissioners review Land Use Committee meetings to see how much time is spent on energy issues and Schulman cut her off.

Lo said the City looked into batteries and “if we’re using all the electricity on site all the time, there’s no reason to store it.”

The City wants to achieve Net Zero but it’s tough in an urban area, Lo said. At Cranbury, “we’re not going to go into the woods and cut down trees just to put a solar system.” There’s a good location at the proposed South Norwalk school site but SNEW (South Norwalk Electric and Water) doesn’t have an incentive program and it’s “much more challenging” to make it economically feasible.

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Drew Todd February 3, 2023 at 8:28 am

Let’s thank the City for caving into the New Bob Duff High. But let’s be real the cost now we know full well will be way way over budget and later then we think. What a waste and shameful if the City and and the Mayor for Green Lighting this project that no one asked for or needed just to satisfy Bobby Boys nightmare of a. Regional School to get back at districts like Darien. Imagine the amount of amazing things we could do with all of this funding all across the district and still modernize NHS. Sad and more backwards thinking.

Johnny cardamone February 3, 2023 at 8:46 am

In my humble opinion, this is a big mistake and a big waste of money the facility there is fine and they should build another school in another location such as the Eli Whitney campus in S. Norwalk Call it, Rowayton High

Rem Bigosinski February 3, 2023 at 12:19 pm

Thank you Diane for sticking up for the future of Norwalk and for persevering through very rude behavior.

There are some misleading aspects of the video presentation that support Diane’s diligent activism:

1) Solar capacity is an average. There are clouds, snow and there are different sun angles during the year. Electricity generation will be lowest in the winter due to the lower sun and highest in the summer when there are also no classes held, especially July-August. In the winter, provided that Daylight Savings will continue, this also means that it gets dark during the time of many after school activities. *This makes battery storage essential*.

2) It’s extremely shortsighted not to look at life cycle costs. I did not see that in this presentation. Solar PV is end-of-life at about 20-25 years due to UV damage. So, in 25 years, who will foot the bill to replace the panels? The solar developer? The City who is leasing the panels?

3) In terms of life-cycle cost alone, geothermal is the better option as wells can last hundreds of years (in any case, much longer than Solar PV). The obstacles presented are not insurmountable and could be accomplished by using construction phasing to put them under the parking or put the stormwater infiltration chambers under the building. The city could also invest in greywater recycling systems to reduce drainage requirements; for example for irrigation and toilet bowl water. That requires Health Code change, but it’s been done elsewhere in the country.

4) Proposing gas heating in 2023 is completely irresponsible. New York City has already banned new fracked gas (Natural Gas = Fracked Gas) infrastructure for any new construction. PURA last year ended the System Expansion Plan because it found that it *did not* lower costs for ratepayers and the principal reason right now Norwalkers and others in the state are paying through the nose for electricity bills is directly attributed to the increase of costs of fracked gas delivery. So by putting that into the new school, Norwalkers will have to pay ever increasing utility bills to heat those various spaces in the school. There’s also the associated health problems with fracked gas but this post is getting too long!

5) For a +$300 million building, residents should *demand* best-in-class results! Seriously.

Bryan Meek February 3, 2023 at 1:34 pm

From the 1/4/23 Land & Building Cmtte. Go to the 57 minute mark for the presentation on the solar farm they want to put over the parking lot.


From the Planning hearing on 2/1/23 at the 2:12 mark a rendering. The whole conversation is much longer beginning before the 2 hour mark and goes on.

No one on the panel could answer what we are currently paying at NHS for electricity, yet the discussion of $6 million on solar panels ensued.

NPS budget ask shows $2.5 Million for 23/24 for electricity. Some rough numbers here, but that would roughly translate to $400k a year for NHS. So if a fully covered parking lot could supply 1/3, we’d save $133k a year which would pay for themselves in about 50 years. Just in time to build the next NHS. And plus, look how nice they look.

Of course none of this includes the cost of maintaining these things, which would fall to the schools operating budgets in perpetuity.

It’s nice for Rowaytonites to demand this new building have solar on every possible square inch, but can someone point me to any solar grids on public space in Rowayton? I’d like to see how aesthetic they are for myself. The pictures don’t do them justice.

John O'Neill February 3, 2023 at 4:40 pm

One thing everyone needs to keep in mind: Green Zealots do not care about costs They would be perfectly happy to bankrupt any community that stands in their way. Glad to see they’re passionate with other’s money. The Left of Center voices on the Common Council are not Left enough for these groups. AND they never will be.
I’d like to know where these Green Zealot are when it comes to cutting trees down for Harry’s Towers North of the Parkway. We’ll miss that tree canopy up there…ALSO, where were they when Liz Suchy was shoving a monstrosity down the throats of North Richards Avenue residents.

Bryan Meek February 4, 2023 at 9:06 am

@Rem, if you believe the Canadian ambassador for energy, New England is currently getting a lot of its electric generation courtesy of burning Russian oil this winter. It’s pure insanity and a result of uneducated policy makers putting all these restrictions on much cleaner LNG. Forgetting green or clean for a minute, you simply can not replace system A with system B overnight, when B is still less than 5% of the capacity. If you turn off system A overnight, you will never have an economy that can build system B. These people will have us living in the dark ages if we are left to their devices. Thanks for bringing some sanity to the conversation.

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