NORWALK — About 200 feet away from homes on Beaty Street, a jumble of silos, funnels and pipes tower above the rooftops at Metropolitan State Hospital.
The network of slate-gray machinery has been steadily growing as construction workers busily jockey beams and pipes into place for a $30-million co-generation power plant.
The 27-megawatt plant, one of seven planned throughout California on state facilities, will eventually heat the hospital and produce electricity.
State officials say the plant--expected to be operating by August--is an example of wise planning by the state to save on energy costs and profit from private development.
"I think co-generation can be the most efficient form of energy per dollar invested," said Marshall Clark, the project's program manager for the state Department of General Services.
But some city officials and residents are not entirely satisfied that all the environmental and visual concerns regarding the plant have been resolved.
"I never really anticipated they would come that close with that big of a plant. It certainly is not an enhancement to the residential area," said Ed Werner, who lives on Beaty Street.
The plant will burn natural gas to produce steam and electricity at the same time--a method known as co-generation. The steam will be funneled to boilers, heating the hospital. The hospital will also use a small portion of the electricity. And the plant will house a separate system that produces chilled water for air conditioning.
Under an agreement with the state, Signal Energy Systems of New Hampshire will construct and operate the plant on a small portion of the 167-acre hospital grounds. The state will receive $48 million over 30 years in lease payments.
Signal Energy Systems will sell the hospital steam, chilled water and 2 megawatts of power for the hospital's needs. The other 25 megawatts of electricity will be sold to Southern California Edison Co. A spokesman for Edison said 25 megawatts is sufficient to serve about 20,000 residential customers.
Clark said that when the state's energy budget rose dramatically during the early 1970s, state officials began looking for alternate forms of energy. Co-generation plants were one idea.
'Millions' Back on Investment
"We don't have to invest any money. We lease a block of land to the developer, who finances, builds and owns the co-generation facility," Clark said. "When you get millions of dollars back on zero investment, that's pretty good. That's the way we looked at it."
Seventeen energy-saving projects are planned at state facilities: seven will be co-generation plants, one will produce only electricity and the rest are solar powered, Clark said.
Charles Oswald, the hospital's chief of plant operations, said the hospital will save money even though the cost for energy would be the same as that produced by its own boilers.
Maintenance costs and $10 million in employee salaries will be eliminated over the lifetime of the project, Oswald said. And since the hospital's aging boilers needed to be replaced, he said, the state will not have to pay $4.5 million for a new heating system.
"We wouldn't have entered into this if we would not have been saving money," said Oswald, who initiated the push for a co-generation facility 10 years ago.
The state will split the lease payments with the hospital to help finance further hospital projects. In addition, as part of the lease agreement, the hospital will receive other benefits such as an emergency generator and a central air-conditioning unit.
When plans for the power plant were presented to the City Council two years ago, its members went on record opposing it because of aesthetic concerns, although they had no control over it.
Don Rouly, the city's planning and development director, said the council objected to the facility because of its proximity to a residential neighborhood and potential noise.
'Not the Greatest Planning'
Mayor Robert White--who has recently been called by residents who say they now realize the scope of the project--said those living nearby have a "right to show displeasure."
"It's not the greatest planning. They should have put it someplace where it would not have any effect on residents 200 feet away," White said.
But city officials said they are helpless to do anything about the plant.
"We can't put a hold on it and stop it. We don't have a right to do that. It's state property," White said.
"It looks like we're stuck with that plant," Councilman Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez said.
But Werner, who has complained to city officials, said he is worried about the effect on the nearby neighborhood.
"They got a big storage tank, about 75 feet high," Werner said. "That's quite a construction thing in your backyard. To what degree is it going to affect our property values?"
Werner compared living next to the plant to "kind of like being stuck next to dumping grounds. Are we going to have a cloud sitting on top of us?"