Johnston Unexpectedly Offers Water to Power Plant

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

In an unexpected turn of events, the town of Johnston, R.I., has thrust itself into the proposed Burrillville power-plant controversy.

After a contentious hearing Jan. 6 in Woonsocket regarding an $18 million offer from Invenergy Thermal Development LLC to buy cooling water for its 900-megawatt Clear River Energy Center, Johnston has thrown itself into the fray by holding a Jan. 10 vote on a similar deal. The Johnston vote will be held on same night that the Woonsocket City Council holds its vote on a water deal.

Opponents of the natural-gas/diesel power plant were surprised by the offer from Johnston.

“No one anticipated they’d be going to Johnston,” said Kevin Cleary, chairman of the Burrillville Conservation Commission.

Cleary said he found no public record of Johnston considering an offer. Some opponents believe the Woonsocket proposal was a bait-and-switch plan from Invenergy to keep attention away from this deal.

“You have to wonder if this is by design,” Cleary said.

Cleary noted that Johnston is likely offering water from the supply it receives from Providence Water, the state’s largest water supplier and a department of the city of Providence. Other municipalities, Cleary said, are free to offer similar deals to sell its water, even though the source is outside the community. Reselling municipal water is legal, Cleary said, as long as the municipality can meet local water needs while having excess room in its network of pipes to sell it to another entity.

Cleary said it looks like Woonsocket might be a pawn in Invenergy’s plan to get water. However, the plan creates more questions than answers.

“What if both communities vote yes?” Cleary asked. “I’m baffled.”

News of the Johnston vote surfaced after municipal offices closed on Monday, so answers have been hard to find.

Invenergy said Friday that it has reluctantly decided to add a costlier cooling system to the fossil-fuel Clear River Energy Center after it ran into resistance from Burrillville water boards for access to local water. The new system cleans and recycles water through an onsite filter system. As a result, the power plant’s daily water need dropped from about 200,000 gallons per day to about 20,000, according to Invenergy.

Water woes forced Invenergy to seek a 90-day extension in October on its application for the power plant. That application now sits before the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB). Invenergy has until Jan. 11 to name its water supplier. A meeting has yet to be scheduled with the EFSB to name that source.

"Invenergy has been asked by the EFSB to identify a backup water source, and we are working with the Town of Johnston to potentially serve that function," Invenergy spokeswoman Meaghan Wims wrote in a Jan. 10 e-mail to ecoRI News.

In an e-mail to its supporters, the FANG Collective is urging power-plant opponents to attend either the meeting in Johnston or Woonsocket.

"Only a massive wave of pressure can stop the water deals from passing in both Woonsocket and Johnston," according to the e-mail.