Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
WARWICK R.I. — The need for the proposed Burrillville power plant — a key issue in deciding the fate of the fossil-fuel project — was thrown into question Oct. 31 by the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB).
EFSB members Janet Coit and Meredith Brady — chairwoman Margaret Curran excused herself at the midpoint of the recent proceedings — ruled that developments in September and earlier have nullified a key advisory opinion that the board relies on for its decision.
The advisory opinion from the Public Utilities Commission, submitted Sept. 12, 2016, argued that the power plant was “cost justified” and necessary to deliver power to the regional grid while saving ratepayers money. The report also concluded that renewable energy and energy efficiency wouldn’t be able to supplant the power from the nearly 1,000-megawatt Clear River Energy Center and that the natural-gas/diesel facility is needed to meet “clean energy goals.”
All of those assertions were thrown into doubt in September when ISO New England, the operator of the regional power grid, took away a power-purchase agreement from Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, the Chicago-based developer of the proposed Clear River Energy Center.
“Things have changed a lot in the past three years, and in the last two years since we’ve had the advisory opinion from the PUC,” Coit said.
Coit noted her failed motion to have the PUC update its advisory opinion in March 2017. She and Brady both said the EFSB has the authority to reject, approve, or modify an advisory opinion.
At the Oct. 31 EFSB hearing, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the town of Burrillville presented testimony from Invenergy’s expert witnesses that declared the power-purchase agreement, called a capacity-supply obligation or CSO, was proof that the power plant was needed in the years ahead, while the lack of one proved the plant was unnecessary. They pointed to a 2017 decision by the Connecticut Siting Council that rejected a 550-megawatt power plant in Killingly for lacking a CSO.
The proposed Burrillville facility received more bad news in September when Invenergy was told not to submit its second 485-megawatt turbine for an upcoming CSO auction.
Coit and Brady alluded that both were reasons as to why the PUC advisory opinion was “stale.”
Michael Blazer, chief legal council for Invenergy, said the PUC advisory opinion didn’t need to be rejected and that testimony at future hearings would update any information that is outdated. Blazer has maintained that delays in the hearing process prompted ISO New England to withdraw the CSO. Southeastern New England needs a fast-starting, cleaner-burning power plant as older, higher-polluting plants retire and renewable energy gains a foothold in the region’s energy mix, he said.
Praise for the EFSB’s decision was swift by opponents of the $1 billion project.
“We are pleased with the board’s commonsense decision,” said Burrillville town manager Michael Wood. “The town is painstakingly making the case that building a new power plant in Rhode Island is not justified.”
“How much more proof do we need that this plant is unnecessary?” asked CLF senior attorney Jerry Elmer. “Today’s decision makes it clear: Invenergy needs to admit defeat and stop forcing this unwanted plant on Rhode Islanders.”
The conclusions of the PUC advisory opinion will no longer be considered by the EFSB in its review of the power-plant application. A new advisory opinion from the PUC will not be sought. Updated supplemental information will be submitted by Invenergy, CLF, and the town of Burrillville by Dec. 14.
The Invenergy application is on hold until late November, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to affirm or reject the decision by ISO New England to cancel Invenergy’s power-purchase agreement.
A multi-day hearing to address the cost benefits and need of the Clear River Energy Center is scheduled to begin Jan. 8.
On Nov. 28, the EFSB is scheduled to hear testimony about traffic and a new access road to the proposed power plant. On Dec. 5-6, testimony is expected to cover lighting impacts and cultural and historical impacts. The advisory opinions from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Burrillville town planner are also scheduled to be debated on those dates.
A decision on the power plant isn’t expected until February or later.