Bill Gives Municipalities More Say in Power-Plant Siting

 Margaret Curran, left, and Janet Coit are the remaining members of the Energy Facilities Siting Board. A bill moving through the General Assembly expands the board from three to seven members. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Margaret Curran, left, and Janet Coit are the remaining members of the Energy Facilities Siting Board. A bill moving through the General Assembly expands the board from three to seven members. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A bill moving through the General Assembly won’t halt the proposed Burrillville fossil-fuel power plant but the legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives makes it more difficult for future energy projects to get approved.

H8120 is the culmination of lessons learned from the tribulations of the $1 billion Clear River Energy Center, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cale Keable, whose Burrillville district includes the potential site of the natural-gas/diesel-fueled power plant.

“Power plants have a tremendous impact on their host community and the environment, as well as our energy resources, so they should be vetted in a very thorough, careful process that warrants the public’s trust,” Keable, a Democrat, said.

The state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) was created in 1986 to give the state more say in where power plants are built. Keable’s bill returns some of that authority to cities and towns. The legislation expands the EFSB from three to seven members, including two from the host community.

Currently, only two EFSB members, Janet Coit and Margaret Curran, are adjudicating the Clear River Energy Center application. Parag Agrawal held the third seat until he abruptly left his job as associate director of the Division of Statewide Planning in April. Agrawal didn't stay on the EFSB for the remainder of the application process because he is no longer employed by the state and planned to move outside of Rhode Island.

A successor to Agrawal isn't expected in the near future and, therefore, it seems unlikely a replacement will be named to the EFSB to help complete the Clear River Energy Center application process. Both Coit, who is director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and Curran, the chair of the Public Utilities Commission, must approve the application for it to be granted.

A seven-member EFSB would be filled by the director of the Department of Health, the state fire marshal and two members from the host community. One community member would represent residents and the other would represent business interests. The Massachusetts power plant siting board has nine members, including one representing labor and another representing the environment. The Connecticut Siting Council also has nine members.

The most significant requirement in Keable's bill is the stipulation that the full application be submitted before the EFSB begins its review. This includes state-issued air and water pollution permits, advisory opinions, and local building permits. The Clear River Energy Center submitted its application on Oct. 29, 2015 and has yet to receive permits for air pollution and wetland alteration from DEM. Under current siting rules, environmental permits can be issued after a power plant is approved.

The Clear River Energy Center application has already been delayed twice, after the developer, Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development, struggled to secure a water source for cooling the nearly 1,000-megawatt power plant. Several state agencies and local departments issued unfinished advisory opinions because of insufficient information from Invenergy. The legislation requires all information to be submitted prior to the start of the review. If the EFSB finds the application is incomplete at the outset, the developer has 60 days to furnish the information or the application is rejected.

The bill also requires that the project complies with the state greenhouse gas-emission reduction goals as set by the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014.

The developer must pay for an attorney to work on behalf of the host community to conduct environmental and environmental justice reviews, according to the bill. The applicant also pays for reports showing that the project complies with local ordinances and funds advisory opinions from municipal zoning, planning and building departments.

The legislation also gives more say to city and town councils. If a community already hosts a power plant with an energy capacity of 250 megawatts or larger, then the EFSB must abide the council's desire to support or reject the project, unless there is “clear and convincing” evidence to the contrary.

The bill has bipartisan sponsorship and passed the House, 69-0, on May 16. The bill moves to the Senate for a committee hearing. The Senate version of the bill S2905 has a hearing scheduled for May 24.

Two other bills seek to change the rules for approving and building new fossil-fuel power plants in Rhode Island. Senate bill S2054 requires any new power plant to comply with state carbon emission-reduction efforts. The bill has had one hearing, in the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.

Senate bill S2508 requires new fossil-fuel energy projects to build or invest in renewable-energy projects. The bill had a hearing on March 28 and remains in committee.