U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney and U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

STORRS, CT  – The University of Connecticut’s Clean Energy Engineering Center served as the backdrop for the Biden Administration’s Friday announcement it would be dedicating $7 million to expand a free energy assessment program for manufacturers looking to reduce their carbon footprint.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm made the announcement at a press conference after touring the Storrs facility, which houses one of dozens of university-based Industrial Assessment Centers run by the Energy Department nationwide. 

Last summer, the Connecticut program was an early recipient of $1.75 million in federal funding. The administration now plans to fund similar programs at five additional schools in California, Delaware, Georgia and Texas. The funding will come from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year.

“This is the tip of the spear for the Industrial Assessment Center efforts,” Granholm said from a podium situated in front of a fuel cell power plant which helps supply energy for the campus.

The Storrs facility was one of three planned stops in Connecticut Friday for Granholm, a former Democratic governor of Michigan. She toured the center with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, UConn President Radenka Maric, and state Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes as well as several state lawmakers. 

Granholm had additional stops planned at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford and the State Pier in New London, both meant to spotlight investments in nuclear and wind-based energy sources. 

During brief remarks in Storrs, Granholm spoke optimistically about efforts to fund decarbonization programs, electric vehicle battery storage projects and the emergence of a “clean energy economy.”  

“It’s just really an exciting time to be in this energy space. We feel like we’re in the middle of history being made,” Granholm said. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you are in the middle of it, but we are right in the thick of just an incredible time.”

Connecticut’s Industrial Assessment Center is still getting off the ground however the program has existed since 1976 and nearly 20,000 manufacturers nationwide have participated in assessments. According to federal statistics, businesses who have implemented the recommendations of assessment teams have saved on average $137,000 annually. 

Liang Zhang, an associate professor of engineering at UConn, said six regional manufacturers had already requested assessments and the program was expected to eventually conduct around 20 assessments in the northeast region per year. He said the  assessor teams help identify unnecessary waste in factory systems.

“We look at all the main energy systems and consuming parts in the typical factory,” Zhang said. “Depending on the industry it could vary, but we look at processes [like] heating and cooling, motors, compressed air. Those are the main energy consumers usually on the floor.”

The program’s total budget amounts to about $3.3 million over five years. In addition to federal money, Zhang said the project benefited from about $600,000 in support from utility companies like Eversource and United Illuminating. 

Granholm, who left the event without taking questions, said the free program has proven popular among manufacturers nationwide. 

“No wonder it’s such a popular program. There’s lines of businesses who want to be assessed and then given the technical assistance to be able to reduce their energy costs,” she said. 

Those reduced costs also benefit the environment, according to Granholm, who said the industrial sector produced about 30% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Making sure that we use less energy is an important part of getting to that clean energy future,” she said.

During a press conference at the State Pier later in the day, Granholm was asked about rising gas prices. She said the administration understood the severity of the situation at the pump and it underscored the need to transition to alternative sources of energy. 

Granholm said gas prices had increased as a result of oil being pulled off the market due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and countries that do not want to help finance that war by purchasing Russian oil.

“We have an immediate crisis. We’re on a war footing,” Granholm said. “So that means we’ve got to increase supply right now but we cannot take our eye off the ball in terms of accelerating clean [energy]. In fact if this war shows anything, it shows that we must accelerate toward clean so that we don’t find ourselves in this position in the future.”