Conn. Board Says State Doesn't Need More Fossil Fuels

Burrillville opposition encouraged by rejection of Killingly Energy Center

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

A key argument against the proposed Burrillville, R.I., fossil-fuel power plant has derailed a similar natural-gas project in nearby Killingly, Conn.

Since the Clear River Energy Center (CREC) plan was announced more than two years ago for a forested site in northwest Rhode Island, opponents have argued that the electricity it would generate would be redundant. Power saved through energy efficiency and created by renewable energy, they reason, reduces electric demand and more than offsets the nearly 1,000 megawatts of energy that would be produced by the proposed facility.

This argument of surplus fossil-fuel energy in New England was argued in a 2015 report from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and subsequently by research groups such as Synapse Energy Economics of Cambridge, Mass.

Synapse principal associate Robert Fagan has provided testimony on behalf of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) in the case against the $1 billion CREC proposal, which is being considered by the Rhode Island Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB).

Fagan’s testimony to the EFSB states that new solar and wind projects, and increased energy efficiency reduce near- and long-term demand for electricity in southern New England. Fagan submitted similar findings to the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC) in its review of the 550-megawatt Killingly Energy Center

In a May 5 draft opinion, the CSC ruled that the Killingly natural-gas power plant application met safety and environmental benchmarks, including promises of sharply reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions in future years. But the $537 million project didn't satisfy the benchmark for public need. To be specific, the CSC noted that energy demand over the next three to five years would be met through existing power plants in southern New England. Long-term energy needs are unclear, the CSC stated.

The board offered the developer, NTW Collection LLC, to resubmit an application when and if other power plants announce plans to retire, a process that takes several years.

“The Council finds and determines that the proposed (Killingly) facility is not necessary for the reliability of the electric power supply of the state or for a competitive market for electricity at this time. If there is a future need for additional capacity, the market will respond,” according to the CSC draft opinion.

It’s uncertain whether the Rhode Island siting board will follow the same logic and turn down the CREC application. CLF senior attorney Jerry Elmer is encouraged by the Connecticut ruling and hopes that Fagan’s testimony will convince the EFSB to deny the CREC application.

“This does not mean that we will automatically win the case," Elmer wrote in an e-mail. "But CLF continues to believe that it will be very, very important for CLF to present Bob Fagan’s testimony that the Invenergy plant is just not needed by the ISO."

ISO New England is the operator of the regional power grid. Its energy projections are a central issue in the CREC application. Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, the Chicago-based developer of CREC, says ISO New England believes that 6,000 megawatts of electric power are “at risk” of going off-line after 2019. Therefore, a new natural-gas power plant would fill the electricity supply gap.

The Connecticut siting board, however, noted that auctions to supply electricity from existing power plants to the grid have already committed electricity until 2021. It gave little weight to the “at-risk” power plants that may close between 2025 and 2030. Instead, the CSC referred to ISO New England’s own words in describing those retirements as “hypothetical.”

Complicating the matter is the fact that ISO New England only agreed to buy half of the output of electricity from the Burrillville power plant in auctions for 2019 and 2020. CLF believes that the agreement to purchase half of the power proves that the entire project is unneeded. Invenergy, however, maintains that the forward purchase agreements prove that some of the electricity from its proposed power plant is needed in the near term while the rest will be relied on in future years as older power plants are decomissioned.

The ISO New England agreements to buy future output from power plants, however, doesn't differentiate between what is needed to meet demand and excess power that it may buy as standby power. The Killingly power plant withdrew its application to receive energy contracts because the project wasn't far enough along the permitting process to be operating and therefor provide power by the contract date.

Further complicating the matter is the promise by both Massachusetts and Rhode Island to dramatically increase their use of imported and locally produced renewable energy by 2020. Both energy pledges would add 3,000 megawatts of capacity to the power grid and would supplant the electricity from fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants that may retire in ISO New England's “at-risk” group.

An additional factor is the rapid gain in energy efficiency. Both Massachusetts and Rhode Island are at or near the top of rankings for policies and actions that reduce energy use. Patrick Knight of Synapse said ISO New England chronically underestimates the impact of energy efficiency on reducing energy needs and revises it projected energy reductions every year to show the gains it is making in cutting energy use.

In all, it appears that the demand for new power plants will decline as energy efficiency improves and renewable-energy capacity increase. The question for Invenergy is whether it can make the case to fill shrinking demand for natural-gas power.

“We think that is validation for the idea that we don't need new power plants in New England,” saId Max Greene, CLF staff attorney.

Next for the CREC is a May 31 Superior Court court hearing in a case filed by CLF and the town of Burrillville that seeks to nullify the water agreement between Invenergy and the town of Johnston. The hearing will address a motion to dismiss the case by Invenergy.

The EFSB is creating a schedule for hearings to present updated advisory opinions from town departments and state agencies. Those hearings are expected this summer.