Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
WARWICK, R.I. — The opening statements for the final leg of hearings for the proposed Clear River Energy Center offered a preview of the strategy, testimony and arguments expected in the months ahead.
The Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) will make a decision based on three criteria: the need for the natural-gas/diesel power plant and its nearly 1,000 megawatts of electricity; environmental damage; and economic impact.
The need for the energy facility was scrutinized early and at length during a full-day hearing on April 26.
Michael Blazer, chief legal officer for the developer, Chicago-based Invenergy, argued that an atmosphere of misinformation, media hype, alternative facts and fear-mongering has clouded the truth about the $1 billion project.
“We will try to strip away the misleading rhetoric, the exaggeration, and the media-tailored sound bites and just focus on the facts,” Blazer said.
Blazer quoted from reports, called advisory opinions, written by state agencies and departments that endorsed the project. The state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Office of Energy Resources (OER) both said the Clear River Energy Center would help meet future electrical demand for southern New England and that renewable energy and energy efficiency will not be sufficient to replace the power lost by retiring power plants.
“These opinions are unquestionably unbiased,” Blazer said.
Blazer read from an advisory opinion by the Division of Statewide Planning that concluded that the fossil-fuel power plant will not impinge on state open space and greenway master plans. The project is proposed for 67 acres owned by Spectra Energy, the operator of the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline, which will fuel the power plant. Spectra also owns a controversial pipeline compressor station that would abut the proposed power plant. Blazer said the power plant would occupy less than 3 acres and the rest of the property would be vegetated and landscaped to hide it from neighbors.
He said expert witness will concur with the conclusion by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management that the fossil-fuel power plant will not prevent the state from meeting its goals for cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
Blazer took issue with the notion by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) that its application is erroneous because only one of its two turbines has been able to sell its future power.
“It’s just not true,” he said. “So this morning I want to talk to you about facts. Not the type of alternative facts that have become far too prevalent in our society today. But what we believe are the real facts in this proceeding. No rhetoric. No hyperbole.”
Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for CLF, argued that many of the advisory opinions are out of date and that several new power plants have been approved and are being built since the reports were written. An August 2016 advisory opinion from the PUC was accurate at the time, Elmer said, but since then a new power station in Bridgeport, Conn., began construction and a new plant was approved in Medway, Mass.
“We will put into the record of facts that show Invenergy has lied to the EFSB, lied to ISO New England and lied to the public,” Elmer said. “Even if some power plant were needed this would not be the company to build that plant.”
Elmer and the town of Burrillville’s attorney, Michael McElroy, referenced ISO New England's forecast predicting decreased energy usage in southern New England in the next 10 years.
McElroy also called the advisory opinions outdated and irrelevant. He noted that no new large power plants have received power-purchase agreements from ISO New England during the past two years.
“There is no credible evidence that a new 1,000-megawatt, gas-fired facility is needed in this region at this time or for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Excess power generation in recent years has lowered the price ISO New England pays for future power-purchase agreements. Elmer said one of Invenergy’s own witnesses, Ryan Hardy, testified that prices from annual energy auctions reflect the demand for new power plants. Elmer then showed that the auction price has dropped significantly in three consecutive years.
“The fact is, that if you apply the metric urged on you by Ryan Hardy, this plant is not needed,” Elmer said.
He said the proposed power plant would prevent the state from meeting its non-binding goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Relying on a flawed accounting “trick,” Elmer said the advisory opinions are inaccurate for using consumption-based modeling. This modeling, Elmer said, would allow Rhode Island to build a new coal-fired power plant and still meet its emission-reduction goals.
Environmental impact assessments are also incomplete, according to Elmer. He referenced decades-old reports from the The Nature Conservancy showing that the land is critical habitat and forestland. He noted that the project would create forest fragmentation in an ecologically sensitive “pinch point” in undisturbed forest between Maine and Connecticut.
Elmer pointed to an assertion by Invenergy that ratepayers wouldn't be charged for the project while it was suing National Grid and ISO New New England to be allowed to charge ratepayers to pay to connect the power plant to the electric grid.
As the hearing progress, Elmer said, expert testimony and “the evidence will show that Invenergy was just not credible.”
The recent hearing kicked off a lengthy final phase of public meetings that will be held sporadically between April 26 and Oct. 31. Energy and environmental experts are scheduled to begin testifying July 19. There will be no public comment. The EFSB is expected to vote, during a public meeting, on the application before the end of the year. A written ruling will be released and a seven-day appeal period starts after the ruling is published.