Reports Conflict on Need for New Gas Power Plant

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The latest electricity auction for New England paints an interesting picture of the proposed Burrillville fossil-fuel power plant and its role in the regional energy mix. For the second straight year, ISO New England, the nonprofit operator of the regional power grid, agreed to only buy about half of the electricity from the 900-megawatt power plant for 12 months between 2020 and 2021.

To Jerry Elmer of the Conservation Law Foundation, the lack of demand for the electricity shows there is more than enough power generation to meet future energy needs and, thus, the proposed Clear River Energy Center (CREC) is unnecessary and shouldn't be built.

“The fact that there is an enormous surplus of capacity — without any electricity whatsoever from Invenergy’s proposed power plant — is the clearest and best indication yet that the plant is not needed,” Elmer said.

After similar auction results were announced last year, CREC’s developer, Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, interpreted the news as affirmation that the power plant will be most needed in the years beyond 2020, when more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity go off-line with the retirement or reduced output from older power plants in southern New England.

Invenergy’s reaction to this year’s ISO auction is the same. “The latest auction results reflect a snapshot of the market three years from now, not long-term needs,” said John Niland, Invenergy’s project manager for CREC.

Niland may have a point. In its report State of the Grid: 2017, ISO New England identifies 6,000 megawatts of electricity from 11 New England power plants that are at risk of going off-line after 2019. These power facilities are proving inadequate based on their age, the low price of natural gas, and the cost of compliance with environmental regulations.

Invenergy also argued that the natural-gas/diesel power plant, with its high-tech capability to swiftly ramp-up and dial-down output, is the best solution for the problem of intermittent electricity from the fast-growing wind- and solar-power sector.

“We need a diversified energy mix, and it’s clear natural gas must play a role in that energy portfolio,” Invenergy noted last year in a prepared statement.

CREC will add to that energy diversity with its capability to burn diesel fuel, which it will likely do if the natural-gas supply becomes strained as it did during the winters of 2013 and 2014. Despite advances in renewables, energy efficiency and increased storage, ISO New England maintains that the wintertime shortage of the natural-gas supply still exists, a problem that may worsen with an expected increase of new residential and commercial natural-gas customers.

Elmer, however, said the future is already here and that improved energy efficiency and added renewable power are reducing the need for existing and future fossil fuel-generated electricity.

“While it is certainly true that we can speculate about possible additional retirements more than three years out,” Elmer said, “it is also true that there may be lots of additional renewable resources, demand response, energy efficiency, rooftop solar more than three years out.”

ISO New England acknowledges that renewable energy and large-scale energy storage are the solutions to addressing spikes in demand, as well as ending a reliance on fossil fuel from outside the region. But the Holyoke, Mass.-based grid operator believes it will be too costly and take too long to build and integrate theses advances for them to have a meaningful impact on the grid.

“Wind and solar resources can offset some natural gas use and they are growing, but they are still a small part of the regional resource mix,” according to the ISO New England report.

Yet, a report from Synapse Energy Economics of Cambridge, Mass., released Feb. 7 says the long-term need for natural gas will be reduced by as much as 41 percent by 2030. The main reasons are mandated increases in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and new emission-reduction goals from programs such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

New power plants and pipelines expansions such as Access Northeast are unnecessary, according to the report.

“Existing laws — renewable portfolio standards, energy efficiency resource standards, long-term requirements for additional hydropower and wind power, and carbon dioxide emissions caps — require a significant reduction in natural gas-fired generation throughout New England,” accoridn to the Synapsereport.

Robert Fagan, a principal associate with Synapse, said there are plenty of existing power plants to generate electricity when older facilities retire.

“There’s an extensive fleet in New England that already have that capability. We certainty don’t need a new power plant beyond that,” he said.

Elmer noted that the most recent ISO New England auction is already recognizing that surplus power generation. The auction for the region that includes Rhode Island was padded with a surplus of 1,926 megawatts of electricity. This surplus, he said, is reason enough for the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) to reject the CREC, which, if built, would be Rhode Island's largest generator of electricity.

CLF and the town of Burrillville have open requests to dismiss Invenergy's application with the EFSB. A hearing on the dismissal is scheduled for Feb. 16.

“If Invenergy does not voluntarily withdraw its EFSB application, we hope the EFSB finds that there is absolutely no need for this plant and rejects it,” said Michael McElroy, an attorney representing Burrillville.