Need, Cost Dominate Burrillville Power Plant Hearing

Herbert DeSimone Jr. was the only member of the three-person state Public Utilities Commission to attend the June 30 public hearing at CCRI. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Herbert DeSimone Jr. was the only member of the three-person state Public Utilities Commission to attend the June 30 public hearing at CCRI. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Text and video by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WARWICK, R.I. — The debate over the proposed Burrillville power plant marched on at a recent public hearing that focused on the need and cost for building one more natural-gas power plant in Rhode Island.

Need and cost, of course, have varied interpretations that shift depending on one’s stance regarding the project. The developer, Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, and builders unions say the need for electricity will increase as coal and nuclear plants shut down in New England. The three people who spoke in favor of the project at the June 30 Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hearing also argued that the power plant is necessary to keep the lights on, and the $700 million project will reduce electric bills.

The 36 people who spoke against the project, most of whom were Burrillville residents and/or environmentalists, argued that energy efficiency and renewable energy are already picking up any slack in electric supply and will continue do so, while avoiding the public health and environmental harm that would be caused by the new 900-plus-megawatt fossil-fuel power plant.

These two issues were the focus of the one-person PUC hearing recently held at the Community College of Rhode Island.

Only one PUC member was present, because newly appointed commissioner Marion Gold recused herself from the hearing for having previously stated support for a power plant while serving as director of the state Office of Energy Resources. The third commissioner, chair Margaret Curran, also serves on the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) and wasn't present at the June 30 hearing.

The lone PUC commissioner, Herbert DeSimone Jr., explained that the PUC is examining need and cost at the behest of the EFSB. After getting a report from the PUC and several state entities, the EFSB will render a decision about issuing a license to build the power plant by the end of this year or early 2017.

The four-hour listening session began with testimony from Rep. Cale Keable and Sen. Paul Fogarty. The Burrillville Democrats lambasted the developers as out-of-touch corporate lobbyists.

“The company wouldn’t know Burrillville from Buffalo,” said Fogarty, noting that a thorough economic impact study is missing to determine the true costs of the natural-gas-and-diesel power plant.

Fogarty also raised a point that has been repeated by project opponents: the site on Wallum Lake Road was rejected in 1988 as one of 80 sites considered for the town's existing Ocean State Power electricity plant because of environmental and economic impacts.

“Invenergy has looked at zero alternative sites," Fogarty said. "That’s outrageous and unacceptable."

The projected savings for consumers of up to $280 million hasn't added the expenses for power line and infrastructure upgrades needed to deliver the power. He suggested relocating the project closer to an urban area, such as the oil terminal on Dexter Road in East Providence.

Fogarty noted that Burrillville has already done its part for the state by hosting the 560-megawatt Ocean State Power plant and the massive Algonquin pipeline compressor station.

“We’ve done more than our part for the energy needs of Rhode Island,” he said.

Keable said the project is being sited in between two conservation areas that total 7,000 acres of protected state land. Recent studies show that southern New England has an ample electricity supply for the years ahead, with no need for building a polluting fossil-fuel power plant, he said.

“If the market can’t bear this project, than we shouldn’t be asked to host it,” Keable said.

Douglas Gablinske of The Energy Council of Rhode Island (TEC-RI), which advocates for low-energy costs for companies such as Toray Plastics, Taco Inc. and Providence College, argued that long-term demand is there. An analyst from ISO New England, he said, explained at a recent conference that the electricity auction conducted in February is being misinterpreted.

"‘His answer is that the forward capacity market is depending on that happening to replace the closing plants.' And he added, ‘You need to do everything you can on the political and regulatory front to blunt that argument.’”

The meeting was unique from recent hearings in that four speakers drove from Thompson, Conn., to argue against building a power plant a few miles from their town.

Tiffany Campbell, 13, said her family would move if the power plant is approved, to avoid the pollution and seeing the harm done to wildlife and the forest. Her mother, Christine, said other towns, including Killingly and Uxbridge, Mass., are also rejecting proposed natural-gas power plants.

“I can tell you no one in Connecticut wants this power plant,” Christine Campbell said.

In all, about 100 people attended the hearing. About 75 percent of the audience was against the project. Of the 39 speakers, 36 spoke against it.

Public hearings on the advisory opinions are scheduled for July 25, 26 and 27 at the PUC office, 89 Jefferson Blvd., all at 9:30 a.m. The EFSB will then consider the advisory opinions and conduct additional hearings.