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Northland sees 'tremendous opportunity' as it looks to solar power

The Northland complex could be going solar.

The agency that owns the Northland Corridor advanced manufacturing campus on the East Side wants to create a community solar array and a microgrid electrical system to power the project and surrounding neighborhood.

The Buffalo Urban Development Corp. last week received four responses to its request for solar and electrical installation companies to design and implement a plan to achieve its power objectives, while also using it to develop a job training program in renewable energy.

Besides complying with new energy efficiency goals set by the state, the initiative seeks to attract investment and jobs to Northland while benefiting the nearby community and its residents, agency officials said.

The project is part of a broader "strategic energy concept" that BUDC officials are developing around smart growth, workforce development, economic development and community revitalization, said agency board member and former National Grid executive Dennis Elsenbeck, who is leading the effort.

"There are a lot of programs, a lot of issues that our Rust Belt communities face," he said. "Northland epitomizes that, but it’s not the only one."

The key, Elsenbeck said, is to "develop a system of tomorrow, today, that meets the needs of Northland, while positioning BUDC as a leader in how to develop these concepts."

First, BUDC is looking for one or more firms to install a solar array on the roof of Northland Central at 683 Northland Ave., including financing for the project and setting up the legal framework so the neighborhood reaps the rewards.

The agency also wants to upgrade the substation on the campus to allow for future growth, while also creating a microgrid system and energy storage system. BUDC would own the microgrid and contract with energy providers.

"It’s an interesting opportunity," Elsenbeck said. "Part of what we face on the Northland site is a need for capacity. What we have in most of our neighborhoods is aging infrastructure."

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BUDC also wants the winning firm to develop a two-year training curriculum that the Workforce Training Center and three collaborating colleges — SUNY Alfred State, SUNY Erie and Empire State College — can use to teach workers the skills needed for renewable energy jobs.

The city is working with Eaton Corp., a Pennsylvania-based power management company, to develop an "experience center" at Northland — a lab for energy startups and entrepreneurs similar to one that Eaton built in Pittsburgh — to demonstrate and test the new technology.

The project would not only restructure the entire utility system at Northland, Elsenbeck said, but would also allow BUDC to show "how the electrical system works, how it's connected to energy systems and the microgrid, and how it responds during a storm."

And officials said the combination of the solar array, microgrid and job training would help to lure more advanced manufacturers to the Northland area.

"We have a tremendous opportunity to develop something that is not seen. Not only will we have the experience center in the walls of the Workforce Training Center, but we will be demonstrating how it operates," Elsenbeck said. "We’re already getting a lot of interest from other energy companies to come to Buffalo because we’re creating this ecosystem that starts with workforce development."

The agency has received a commitment from Empire State Development Corp. for a $2 million grant for the project, and officials are also counting on tax credits and additional financial assistance from National Grid and the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, said BUDC Executive Vice President David Stebbins.

BUDC reached out to an array of contractors to solicit bids, including Frey Electric Construction Co. Ferguson Electric Construction Co., Solar Liberty, Montante Solar and Rochester's Acadia Energy.

Stebbins did not identify the companies that actually submitted bids, but he said a team of agency officials and board members will interview the firms in preparation for making a recommendation to the board in March.

"It'll probably be a multicompany team that will be doing this," Stebbins said.

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