Opponents Question Need for More Natural Gas

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — While the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) is busy considering a proposal for a new natural-gas power plant here, there has been little movement on the project with local officials.

Invenergy Thermal Development LLC of Chicago expects to start building the Clear River Energy Center by the beginning of 2017 and have it generating electricity by June 1, 2019. But the town Planning Department has yet to receive an application for the $700 million facility, one that must eventually receive local permits and approval by the Planning Board.

One major permit addresses noise. Residents near the proposed site already complain of a bothersome rumble from a nearby natural-gas compressor station. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Army Corps of Engineers will consider permits relating to air pollution, stormwater, wetlands, sewer and public water. A study of impacts on historical and Native American sites also is required.

The compressor station is part of the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline that runs from New Jersey to Massachusetts. Spectra Energy of Houston owns the pipeline and the compressor station and is selling land to Invenergy for building the proposed power plant. Invenergy declined to comment on whether it has acquired the land from Spectra. Local officials said they have no record of a real-estate transaction.

Meanwhile, the shorthanded EFSB — two members, instead of three — visited the 67-acre site Feb. 22. Invenergy denied a media request to join the tour, and wouldn’t agree to a future visit. The EFSB is scheduled to hold a public meeting in Burrillville on March 31. Two more public hearings are expected before the EFSB issues a decision this fall.

Excess power
One of Invenergy’s principal reasons for the project appears to have been undercut. The energy company has said a new plant is necessary to meet the growing demand for energy in the region and to fill the energy void created by the retirement of some area power plants. According to the legal advocacy group the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), however, this argument was debunked in early February when a regional auction for the power purchased half of Clear River Energy Center’s expected output.

“The bottom line is very, very simple: the Invenergy plant is just not needed for system reliability. It is not needed to keep the lights on," Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for CLF, wrote in a recent blog post. “Rhode Island, Southeastern New England, and all of New England have a surplus of generation capacity without Invenergy’s proposed plant.”

Invenergy considers the recent auction an endorsement of the project. “We’re pleased that ISO-New England has selected our Clear River Energy Center in its latest forward capacity auction. This sends a clear signal that our project will play a major role in solving New England’s  energy challenges, by bringing affordable, clean and reliable new energy to the area," a company spokesman told ecoRI News.

The Burrillville compressor station, nevertheless, is undergoing a major expansion, along with several other segments of the Spectra pipeline. Elmer’s point casts doubt on the need for this and other natural-gas projects in southern New England.

Massachusetts is assessing its Spectra pipeline expansion and other natural-gas projects. In West Roxbury, a few miles of new pipeline and a metering station are under construction despite opposition from environmentalists and elected officials. The city of Boston is appealing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of the project.

New pipeline proposals are also being pushed across the northern stretch of the state. Gov. Charlie Baker supports natural-gas expansion, arguing that more fuel is needed to meet the state’s energy demand and keep energy costs in check.

Opponents, including Attorney General Maura Healey, argue that the state has only had difficulty meeting a few hours of natural-gas demand each year. This gap, she said, can be met with enhanced storage of liquefied natural gas, and growth of renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs.

The costs for the new pipeline projects may also shift to ratepayers. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) held a hearing Feb. 25 for a proposal that would allow power plants to charge electric ratepayers for the cost of Spectra’s pipeline projects and those along Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct pipeline. Utilities Eversource Energy and National Grid support this funding plan. Healey has asked the DPU to delay its decision until a court ruling on the legitimacy of the pipeline pay plan.

“The proposed charge amounts to a tax on customers that makes no sense environmentally or economically,” said Eugenia Gibbons of the renewable-energy supplier and advocacy group Mass Energy Consumers Alliance. “We don’t need the gas and we don’t need the risks associated with a massive build out of unnecessary infrastructure.”

Another concern of pipeline skeptics came true in February, when the U.S. Department of Energy approved the export of natural gas from Massachusetts to Canada and other countries. Opponents say the approval confirms their belief that the new pipelines aren’t intended to keep prices low for local businesses and consumers, but to create new distribution portals to reach overseas markets.

“If we allow natural gas to be exported out of New England to foreign markets, it will only add to the hardship our consumers are facing from high prices and link us to higher-priced international markets,” Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said. “That would be a disaster for our consumers and our region.”