Does Region Need More Natural Gas? Invenergy's Final Burrillville Push Begins April 26

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Take away the bluster and the exaggerated proclamations in the Providence Journal’s latest endorsement of the proposed Burrillville, R.I., fossil-fuel power plant and it takes on one of the central arguments the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) must weigh as it begins its final stretch of hearings are scheduled to begin April 26.

The EFSB is required to decide whether the proposed Clear River Energy Center and its near 1,000 megawatts of electrical output are needed to keep the lights on across southern New England for the two-plus decades it will be operating.

The recent Providence Journal editorial clearly argues “yes,” citing the ISO New England report that notes power plants are retiring across New England and a less-polluting energy facility is available to fill the void.

However, it’s not known when those 10 power plants identified as candidates to retire will close. They must give three years' notice before shutting down. If approved by the EFSB, the Clear River Energy Center would be operational in 2021 at the earliest. The state of the regional power-plant market beyond that is mostly speculation.

Opponents of the Burrillville project say proven cleaner technologies are already picking up the slack for retired power plants like the 1,530-megawatt coal-fired Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Mass., that closed last year.

Energy efficiency, offshore wind and land-based solar continue to meet growing energy demand. In March, ISO New England released a preliminary report finding that usage and peak electricity demand will decline across the region over the next 10 years because of energy efficiency and new solar installations. And more renewable power is on the way, especially wind energy, with close to 10,000 megawatts of new projects proposed for the region.

Intermittency debate
A common argument against renewable energy is that it can’t be relied on to always make electricity and, therefore, only fossil fuels can deliver consistent power.

"There is no feasible technology to store power for use when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing,” according to the Providence Journal's April 17 editorial.

“This is blatantly false, and getting moreso all the time as batteries get cheaper very fast,” said Brown University professor J. Timmons Roberts.

Lithium-battery storage has proven cost-competitive and is gaining significant momentum. Existing and proposed renewable-plus-storage projects, like one from Deepwater Wind, are already promoting themselves as full-time and on-demand power sources. Massachusetts and other states offer grants and incentives for battery energy storage projects, contributing to a projected ninefold market growth by 2022.

Other energy resources such as pumped hydro and Canadian hydropower can deliver electricity on demand. Pumped hydroelectricity is a simple, safe and old solution that can be ramped up by converting local mill ponds to backup hydropower power solutions to meet peak demand, which can typically be a few hours a week during heat waves or several days during cloudy and calm times, according to Roberts.

“There are many other potential storage modes. And the greatest benefits can come from efficiency, conservation, and ‘load shedding’ and ‘peak shaving,’” Roberts said. “With a decent effort on these, we can avoid building any new gas infrastructure and shut some down in a systematic way while keeping the lights on and the houses warm.”

Two issues
Jerry Elmer is leading the opposition to the Invenergy power plant for the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) in its proceedings before the EFSB. Elmer noted that the Providence Journal editorial is arguing two issues: the Burrillville power plant and expansion of natural-gas infrastructure.

“CLF believes that both issues — fossil-fuel pipelines and fossil-fuel power plants — are important issues, and they are related for obvious reasons," Elmer said. “But they are not the same issue, and it is important to keep them separate.”

ISO New England and the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) both point to the need for greater energy diversity in New England. Currently, 96 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity is generated by natural gas. New England as a whole gets 48 percent of its electricity from natural gas. 

OER’s state energy plan notes that diversifying the electricity fuel mix with local renewable energy creates jobs, lowers energy bills and helps the environment.

The Providence Journal argues that a new cleaner-burning natural-gas power plant will reduce the likelihood of rolling blackouts. “The hard truth is that the region needs more natural gas pipeline infrastructure to get that vital fuel here.”

Elmer noted that ISO New England’s Southeast New England zone continues to generate a surplus of energy, even with the retirement of old power plants such as Brayton Point. The proof: For three years, ISO New England has failed to accept half of the electricity capacity, or one of two turbines, from the Clear River Energy Center in its forward-capacity auction. The auction awards agreements to buy the power from an energy facility three years in advance.

ISO New England maintains that natural-gas infrastructure needs to catch up with growing demand for the fuel. But it's also urging the continued use of non-natural gas facilities such as nuclear and oil to remain operational to help ease gas-supply crunches. New natural-gas power plants will be proposed as solutions to renewable energy’s intermittency issue but these energy facilities will only exacerbate already-strained natural-gas infrastructure, according to ISO New England.

The Clear River Energy Center application before the EFSB, however, is for a two-turbine power plant. Having ISO New England purchase agreements in place for both turbines will likely convince the siting board that the electricity is needed to keep the lights on. Yet, Invenergy has so far only received an agreement for one turbine. Elmer said both turbines should receive contracts for the project to get approved.

“Invenergy has made a careful, conscious, deliberate decision not to put in any evidence that would support a single-turbine plant,” Elmer said. “At the end of the hearing, there may be no evidence that would allow the EFSB to approve the pending application.”

Invenergy has maintained that the electricity from both turbines will be relied on to meet future electricity demand and that ISO New England will eventually buy electricity from both turbines.