Those behind the Clear River Energy Center use glowing claims and crafted talking points to sabotage needed conversations
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The out-of-towners behind the development of a proposed natural-gas power plant and the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure in rural Rhode Island have promised economic and energy panacea for the region.
The projects will stabilize electricity rates and save the region billions in energy costs, according to the Texas company that owns the natural-gas pipelines set to be expanded.
The Chicago-based developer of the proposed Clear River Energy Center says the power plant will bring down energy prices, which “will lead to lower electricity rates in Rhode Island — more than $230 million in Rhode Island ratepayer savings in just the first four years of operations.”
Sounds great. ecoRI News wanted to speak with those pushing this narrative. But the projects’ supporters aren’t big talkers, unless, of course, they’re not being questioned about their claims.
We asked four questions: How will the power plant bring down Rhode Island energy rates? Why Rhode Island and the region needs more natural-gas energy? How was the $230 million in ratepayer savings in the first four years of operations determined? How much of this locally produced energy will be exported to markets outside the region?
ecoRI News received an e-mail from a Rhode Island public-relations firm a few days later. It read: “New England faces a looming energy shortfall — 4,200 megawatts will be coming off the grid by 2019, and a total of 10,000 MW in the next decade. Renewable energy alone simply can’t fill that gap. We need a diversified energy mix, and it’s clear natural gas must play a role in that energy portfolio. (Natural gas actually supports and complements renewable energy. This project can be easily ‘ramped up,’ providing power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is not shining.)
“The region’s independent electric grid managers are planning for just that mix to meet our energy demand: Grid operator ISO-New England selected a variety of energy sources in their latest auction for future energy generation, including energy generation from the Clear River Energy Center.
“The Clear River Energy Center will bring down energy and capacity prices, which will lead to lower electricity rates in Rhode Island — more than $230 million in Rhode Island ratepayer savings in just the first four years of operations. The power generated will be used to support electricity demand in Rhode Island and New England.”
The PR e-mail vaguely answered two of the questions, answered one by directly repeating the claim we specifically asked about, and sidestepped the other.
ecoRI News sent a follow-up e-mail again requesting to speak with someone at Invenergy. The PR firm replied, “Why don’t you send along any additional questions you may have and we’ll take a look.”
We e-mailed two additional questions: Why would Invenergy, which describes itself as developing, owning and operating “clean power generation and advanced energy storage facilities” and claims to be “North America’s largest independent, privately-held wind power producer,” focus on fossil-fuel expansion for its proposed project in Burrillville? Why not a renewable-energy project for the site?
The e-mailed reply from the PR agency: “A number of factors go into selecting the proper location for a natural gas plant. The location of our proposed site is zoned for power generation, and is one of only a handful of sites in New England close to a major gas pipeline and electrical lines. The site is well buffered by woods, and more than 1,800 feet from the nearest residence. Taken together, these factors make this a potentially good fit for a power plant.
“As a diversified energy developer, we’re always looking for the right opportunities to develop both traditional and renewable energy — here in New England and across the country.”
No one from Invenergy was made available for an interview, despite repeated requests, meaning journalists, concerned residents, environmentalists and renewable-energy advocates should just take the company’s word regarding its many online claims:
“This project will have a positive impact on the local water supply.”
“This project will contribute millions of dollars annually in property tax revenue for the Town of Burrillville and the Pascoag Fire District. It will be one of Burrillville’s largest taxpayers.”
“We’ll reduce carbon emissions in the region by more than one million tons each year.”
“The Clear River Energy Center will hire more than 300 local construction workers — primarily members from Rhode Island’s local labor unions — to build the facility. And we’ll create 25 new, permanent, well-paid jobs once the facility is operational.”
In May, John Niland, Invenergy’s director of development, did give a short presentation at a Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce event about the proposed power plant. He answered eight questions. The questions were submitted in writing and vetted before being read to Niland.
Control the message
During the early stages of the campaign to expand the region’s use of fossil fuels, required public meetings were announced with a whisper. For a meeting in Tiverton, for instance, Spectra Energy, the Houston-based company that owns many of the pipelines in the area and is a big player in the region’s expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, only sent notice of the meeting to abutters of the proposed project and didn’t advertise it in any way. Although the meeting was held at Tiverton Town Hall and open to the public, it wasn’t listed on the town's website.
Another public meeting in 2014, this one held in Little Compton, also was quietly promoted, but there was an abundance of free schwag emblazoned with the Spectra logo. The branded items included ice-cream scoops, oven mitts, spatulas, lip balm and flashlights. Is the public really that easily bought? Or distracted?
Spectra Energy, which also owns the property on which the Clear River Energy Center would be built, and its Access Northeast business partners, however, are concerned about the safety and prosperity of New England’s vulnerable population.
“Lack of sufficient natural gas pipeline infrastructure in New England is driving electricity prices higher, limiting economic competitiveness and growth, and straining systems to the point where serious reliability issues threaten public safety and security,” according to a Spectra press release.
In that same release, an executive at a partner energy company claims, “Once Access Northeast is operational, it is projected to save electric customers an average of $1 billion a year during normal weather conditions and even more during severe cold weather.”
In a joint press announcement released last summer by Gov. Gina Raimondo and Invenergy president Michael Polsky similar claims were made about the Clear River Energy Center:
“Projected to result in $280 million in cumulative savings for Rhode Island consumers.”
“Generate an overall economic impact to Rhode Island’s economy of $1.3 billion between 2016-2034.”
“The project will contribute more than $3.5 million annually to the local economy in employee salaries.”
“For Burrillville, the project will generate millions of dollars annually in new tax revenue, which can be used to support schools, libraries, police and fire services. Since the facility will have little-to-no impact on town services, the economic benefits should help reduce the property tax burden for homeowners for decades to come.”
“Clear River will also invest in well treatment and system upgrades, which should help the 1,200 water customers of the Pascoag Utility District by contracting on a long-term basis for industrial water supply.”
“Clear River will lower emissions of harmful pollutants in the region by the following amounts each year: Carbon Dioxide (CO2) by 913,000 tons; Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) by 1,993 tons; Sulphur Oxides (SOx) by 2,702 tons.”
The joint announcement also featured quotes from both Raimondo and Polsky about how clean this fossil-fuel power plant will be.
“Governor Raimondo has shown great leadership in working towards clean, affordable, reliable energy in the Ocean State, and the Clear River Energy Center will deliver just that,” Polsky said.
“The construction of this clean energy generation facility will create hundreds of jobs while delivering more affordable and reliable energy to our businesses and homes,” the governor said. “We are tackling our regional energy challenges, committing to cleaner energy systems in the long-term, and putting Rhode Islanders back to work.”
The word “clean” has been used relentlessly in the marketing of the Clear River Energy Center. In a presentation to the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board in January, Invenergy said, “We believe in clean, sustainable energy.”
The Invenergy website notes that “clean, homegrown power is our future.”
“It creates jobs, spurs investment and innovation, benefits the environment, and is vital for energy independence,” according to the company’s Clean Energy webpage. “Affordable and environmentally responsible, clean energy helps diversify our power supply and is key to meeting rising energy demand. The clean energy industry is a dynamic, emerging sector. Invenergy is a highly-experienced leader in innovative clean energy solutions.”
So when this self-described leader in energy innovation and its business partners proposed to build a fossil-fuel energy center in Rhode Island’s woods, powered by natural gas from sources hundreds of miles away from New England, backed up by oil and surrounded by more fossil-fuel infrastructure, the state’s top elected representatives quickly went to the hard sell, telling constituents this energy will be clean and homegrown.
It’s neither. The energy generated by the Narragansett Bay Commission’s three wind turbines is homegrown. But the Clear River Energy Center will produce the same amount of homegrown power as the busted Portsmouth High School wind turbine.
No energy source used to power today’s society can or should be called “clean” — certainly not natural gas, just ask the communities where fracking is happening. Even the energy produced by wind and solar isn’t spotless.
Also lost amidst all the talk of clean energy is the fact the proposed power plant would produce carbon emissions and would be equipped with combustion turbines that would allow the facility to burn oil. Plans call for two million-gallon fuel-oil storage tanks to be onsite.
Invenergy claims “dual fuel facilities typically burn fuel oil during periods of natural gas scarcity.” Of course, the plant’s 2 million gallons of oil could also be burned when it's more profitable to do so.
“The proposed power plant, because it would be fired by a fossil fuel, would emit atmospheric carbon and would consequently have an impact on Rhode Island and global climate,” Conservation Law Foundation attorneys Jerry Elmer and Max Greene wrote in a letter to the Energy Facility Siting Board.
The environmental advocacy group also has said the nearly 1,000-megawatt power plant hinders Rhode Island’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals. Established in 2014, the Resilient Rhode Island Act requires the state to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Opponents of the power plant and its accessories are also concerned that the energy companies involved in expanding New England’s fossil-fuel capabilities are doing so with foreign markets in mind.
Documents have shown that developers are already moving forward on this front. In October 2014, Pieridae Energy filed a federal application to send domestic natural gas from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia, where it would be converted to liquefied natural gas and exported. The Pierdae Energy export plan states that it intends to take advantage of the abundance of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale fracking fields in Pennsylvania.
Opponents of the Clear River Energy Center and the region’s expansion of natural-gas infrastructure argue these projects aren’t about enhancing New England’s energy independence or security, or saving ratepayers money, but about accelerating the sale of domestic natural gas overseas.
Does the Raimondo administration share these concerns? Don’t know. The administration has never made good on its promise to be interviewed by ecoRI News about these projects or about the governor’s environmental agenda. The governor and her staff have answered a handful of one-off questions from ecoRI News, like when Raimondo was asked if she would still support the Clear River Energy Center if the natural gas being used to power the facility was being hydraulic fractured in Rhode Island. She responded by saying she doesn’t deal with theoreticals.
A convenient way to avoid addressing big-picture environmental and public-health issues. Rhode Island’s governor, Statehouse leadership and congressional delegation support the expanded use of energy produced by fracking, despite growing evidence of its detrimental impact on air and water quality.
There’s no high-pressure injection of fracking fluid — chemically infused water containing sand and thickening agents; however, the composition of most of the chemicals remains protected from disclosure through various “trade secret” exemptions — being done in the Ocean State so those concerns don’t exist.
Perhaps advocacy groups and the states being impacted by hydraulic fracturing, both environmentally and public-heath wise, will eventually file a lawsuit against the energy companies and the states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts thirsting for more natural gas for violating federal clean air and water laws. There’s precedent.
Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts were among the eight states, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups, that filed a lawsuit 17 years ago against American Electric Power to address the pollution that drifted east from the company’s plants in the Midwest. The company eventually agreed to close three of its coal-fired power plants, and paid the states $6 million.
Scientists who have analyzed fracking fluid have identified volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Benzene, for one, has been associated with a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases, including cancer and aplastic anaemia.
Invenergy’s 471-page Clear River Energy Center application to the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board makes no mention of the climate impacts of fossil-fuel expansion or the dangers associated with fracking.
How can educated and responsible decisions be made when the conversation avoids legitimate environmental and public-health concerns?
All the manufactured hoopla and steady stream of talking points don’t even address why the region, and most notably Rhode Island, needs more natural gas.
Some 95 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity needs are already met by natural gas — not exactly a diverse portfolio. But the Ocean State’s venture-capitalist-turned-treasurer-now-governor remains a staunch supporter of adding more natural gas to the state’s lopsided portfolio.
Even the Clear River Energy Center’s online fact sheet notes that “our demand for energy requires a diverse portfolio of renewable sources and natural gas.” Rhode Island’s energy mix is about as diverse as a Donald Trump rally.
“The objective is a reliable, low-cost and environmentally benign supply of energy, to support economic growth and safeguard consumers from supply disruptions,” according to the Rhode Island Energy Plan 2002.
Relying on more natural gas doesn’t seem to fit that state objective, but, then again, Rhode Island’s elected representatives have never shown much interest in the taxpayer-funded studies they commission, especially when they interfere with career ambitions or re-election bids.
Don’t believe the hype
Count the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) among those that don’t believe the hype about the region’s need for more natural gas. The two major arguments used by Invenergy in support of its plan to build a power plant in Burriliville are that the plant is needed for the reliability of the electricity grid and to save ratepayers money. Invenergy is wrong on both, according to a letter written by Elmer, CLF senior attorney.
"The bottom line is very, very simple: the Invenergy plant is just not needed for system reliability,” Elmer wrote. “It is not needed to keep the lights on. Rhode Island, Southeastern New England, and all of New England have a surplus of generation capacity without Invenergy’s proposed plant.”
The former Narragansett Electric Co. field engineer who has analyzed energy-industry issues for more than 25 years noted, among other things, that:
“There is no near-to-medium term reliability need for the proposed Invenergy plant.”
“Existing and projected energy efficiency and behind-the-meter solar PV resources in New England more than supplant the energy output of the proposed plant and support a reliable electric sector in Rhode Island and New England without the proposed plant.”
“There is no longer-term reliability need for the proposed plant.”
In response to this question: The Invenergy application implies that the proposed plant is needed to meet reliability needs of Rhode Island and the New England region. Is it? Fagan answered:
“No, the proposed Invenergy plant is not needed to support electric power sector reliability in Rhode Island or in the New England region. A reliable power system requires sufficient resources and a secure transmission system, both of which currently exist in Rhode Island and New England without the Invenergy plant, and both of which will be in place in Rhode Island and New England if the proposed plant is not built.”
Christopher Stix, a volunteer financial analyst for the CLF, also filed testimony last month with the PUC. He expressed some concern with the Illinois company’s claims about ratepayer savings.
“Invenergy’s projections for savings for Rhode Island electricity ratepayers are vastly over-stated, and cannot possibly be accurate,” Stix said.
ISO New England, the entity that operates the regional power system, has said as recently as 2015 that new solar installations and growth in energy-efficiency programs are expected to keep energy demand flat in the region and even decline in Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine in the years ahead.
Opponents of the region’s expanding fossil-fuel footprint, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, have argued that New England has had only minor difficulty in meeting natural-gas demand. This gap, they say, can be met with the growth of renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs.
They worry these projects will lock the region into decades of natural-gas use at a time when the country and the world should be cutting their fossil-fuel use to lessen the impacts of climate change.