Timing Remains an Issue for Invenergy Power Plant

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Opponents of the fossil-fuel power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville, R.I., have found several flaws in the application. For instance, the financial benefit to ratepayers is becoming less convincing and there appears to be adequate energy supply on the regional grid, at least in the near future.

But some issues remain. On the matter of climate change, the chairwoman of the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), Margaret Curran, said evidence submitted to the EFSB argues that emissions from the proposed fossil-fuel facility will not jeopardize Rhode Island’s climate emissions-reduction goals.

“There’s already considerable evidence in the record that it would. That the state would meet (its goals),” Curran said during a Sept. 20 EFSB hearing.

There is also the question of whether the cleaner-burning, fast-starting, natural-gas/diesel power plant would aid the massive influx of renewable energy projected to hit the regional power grid in the years ahead.

Curran asked that question at the same Sept. 20 hearing. 

“But the fact is most of the plants that are currently operating are not nearly as efficient as the proposed plant. That the plants that are currently operating are not capable of resounding to the quick ramp-up, being able to being called immediately to deal with a sudden — if there’s a volcano or suddenly the sky goes dark and all of the solar that producing power is not available. We need something that can ramp up really quickly.

“We have testimony that indeed that kind of generating plant will displace the older plants that just don’t have the capabilities that the new plants have. … We just don’t have the technology now. Something that can increase the percentage of renewable resources on the grid.”

No doubt there are gigawatts of wind and solar planned for the New England power grid, and battery storage is ramping up, too. There is potential of more than 4 gigawatts of wind power from projects offshore of New England alone. But most of those projects have years of permitting to navigate. It’s not, for example, until 2023 that the 600-megawatt Revolution Wind project, developed by Deepwater Wind, could be operational.

According to a 2017 report by ISO New England, the operator of the regional power grid, there is a need for new power plants in so-called “load centers,” such as the southeastern New England zone, to complement interment power sources like wind and solar. The report also sites studies that found that “to accommodate higher amounts of wind and solar power on the electric power grid, utilities will need to ramp up and ramp down conventional generators more frequently than with less wind and solar on the grid.”

ISO New England links the need for always-ready new energy facilities with some 5,000 megawatts of oil and gas power plants are “at-risk” of retirement, plus another 3,300 megawatts of nuclear power that have an uncertain future. While these retirements are simply best guesses by ISO New England, they put further pressure on the need for supplemental power as renewable project and battery storage establish themselves on the power grid.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) points to the recent termination of a power-purchase agreement from ISO New England as proof that the proposed Clear River Energy Center won’t be needed in the near and long term.

But in its cancellation letter, ISO New England blames Invenergy’s failure to meet benchmarks for permits as the reason to cancel the power agreement. There is no mention that the nearly 1,000-megawatt energy facility isn’t needed to provide stability in the years ahead when more renewable energy, such as offshore wind, come online.

Invenergy says the termination was based solely on delays and not a refection of need for the plant in the years after 2021, when it hopes to have the facility operational.

Michael Blazer, chief legal counsel for the Chicago-based company, said with “thousands of megawatts of capacity coming off the grid in the coming years, the need for the Clear River Energy Center is only growing.”

Blazer’s argument is clouded by the fact that the power plant’s second turbine has been barred from even bidding in the annual auction for power-purchase agreements. Ryan Hardy, the key energy expert for Invenergy, has testified repeatedly that the power-purchase agreement is proof the facility is necessary. 

But again, ISO New England hasn’t stated that Invenergy’s proposed power source won’t ever be a part of the regional grid.

So does this mean the Clear River Energy Center is ahead of its time and will be more welcome in five or so years as renewables and energy storage gain prominence on the grid?

ISO New England doesn’t provide much guidance for Invenergy or the project’s opponents.

“The variable nature of renewable resources does create a need for fast-starting, flexible resources that can take up the slack when the wind stops or the clouds roll in, or quickly reduce output when the wind starts up again or the sun comes out,” ISO New England spokesman Matthew Kakley said. “This need is often met by newer natural-gas generators, but the need can be met by any type of resource that can quickly ramp its output up or down. Examples include hydro, pumped storage, and battery storage systems. Battery storage is still a very small part of the region’s fleet, but is likely to play a greater role in this area as the technology becomes more widespread.”

The fate of a similar natural-gas power plant proposal may be telling. In May 2017, the Connecticut Siting Council rejected a 650-megawatt natural-gas power plant in Killingly for failing to obtain a power-purchase contract from ISO New England. The rejection suggests that the timing was off for the project.

According to the decision, “the proposed 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.”

The developer, NTE Energy, can file another application anytime, but has not yet done so. In January, NTE filed a motion to reopen the application, only to withdraw the request in February after it failed to receive a power purchase agreement from ISO New England. According to an NTE spokesperson, the power plant is “currently moving through the development/approval process.”

Invenergy has vowed to pursue the Clear River Energy Center to the end. When it resumes meetings later this month and in December, the EFSB may also decide if this is the right time for the project.