Confidence Grows that Proposed Burrillville Power Plant will be Denied

Opponents of the proposed Burrillville, R.I., fossil-fuel power plant have been vocal about their concerns for the past four-plus years. (ecoRI News)

Opponents of the proposed Burrillville, R.I., fossil-fuel power plant have been vocal about their concerns for the past four-plus years. (ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) has many issues and recent developments to ponder as the Clear River Energy Center (CREC) hearing process enters its fourth year and perhaps its final months.

There have been several delays since the CREC application was filed on Oct. 29, 2015. But if the remaining hearing dates stand pat, a decision by the EFSB is expected by late April. Regardless of the vote, an appeal is expected.

The attorney leading the opposition to the proposed Burrillville, R.I., power plant is “reasonably confident” that the EFSB will vote to deny the $1 billion project.

Of course, that is the position Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, is expected to take for a case that has relied on public opinion. Nevertheless, the news of late has been favorable to a negative outcome for the massive energy facility.

One of the primary elements the three-person EFSB must consider is whether the facility and its electricity are needed to keep the lights on in southeastern New England in future years. Elmer points to the cancellation of a key power purchase agreement, and the prohibition to apply for future ones, as reasons that the power plant is losing relevance.

The developer, Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, has argued that construction delays and opposition groups are to blame for the loss of the power deals, not a lessening need for conventional power plants. ISO New England, the operator of the New England power grid and the issuer of the power-purchase agreement, known as a capacity supply obligation (CSO), backs Invenergy’s claim that construction delays have caused it to rescind the contracts.

But there may be more compelling information proving that a nearly 1,000-megawatt, natural-gas/diesel-fueled power plant with a life expectancy of up to 50 years isn’t required to keep the regional power grid running.

Near daily reports of new renewable-energy projects across the region, both onshore and offshore, are making it clear that new combined-cycle power plants running nonstop aren’t necessary, even as older gas and oil facilities retire. In addition to the surge of new solar and onshore wind projects joining the grid, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have committed to some 4,000 megawatts of offshore wind and the new governor of Connecticut is proposing an additional 2,000 megawatts by 2030.

Several new renewable projects have battery storage, which makes the intermittency worries about wind and solar less relevant. Energy storage is expected to advance quickly in the region, as incentives grow and the technology becomes cheaper and more effective. And behind-the-meter solar and energy efficiency, the unheralded stepchild of the power sector transformation movement, continue to tamp down the growth of electricity use and fulfill spikes in demand across the region, as forecast by ISO New England.

And there’s the nuclear option. There was concern that the aging Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Conn., might close because of financial concerns and leave a hole of some 2,100 megawatts of electricity in the power grid. However, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection recently announced that it has secured a 10-year agreement to keep the nuclear facility operational.

Burrillville’s attorney, Michael McElroy, intends to use this development during cross-examination of Ryan Hardy, the energy-market expert for Invenergy.

Hardy and other witnesses on both sides of the “need” debate are scheduled to be questioned Jan. 8 and 9 and Jan. 16 and 17.

Noise concerns
Noise was a big topic at the hearings in November and December, but on the last day of hearings in 2018 a peculiar issue emerged. David Kessler, an acoustical expert who studies industrial facilities, noted that a major piece of equipment, known as the heat recovery exchange generator, has a flaw that creates low-frequency noise that can be heard well beyond the borders of an energy facility and is hard, if not possible, to remedy. Hessler said the problem afflicts about 1 in 10 boilers of this model and it’s not known if the problem exists until the device is installed and working.

“There’s nothing that can be done about it, really,” Hessler said at the Dec. 5 EFSB hearing. “It's a concern here because that's the last thing that's needed is another low-frequency noise in this area.”

To make matters worse, General Electric, the maker of the turbines for the CREC, has had to shutdown some 18 power plants to make repairs to its HA model turbine — sales of which have dropped because of competition from renewable projects.

Invenergy didn’t respond to request for comment about equipment concerns.

Other hearings
On Jan. 24 and 30, experts on biodiversity impacts and forest connectivity are expected to testify. Scott Comings of The Nature Conservancy is scheduled speak on behalf of CLF.

On Feb. 6 and 7, Invenergy’s director of business development, John Niland, is scheduled to be cross-examined.

If the schedule holds, all intervenors in the case will submit paperwork to the EFSB by the end of March. The EFSB will then discuss the findings in public meetings in April and render a decision by the end of the month. An appeal of the decision by the losing side would be filed in Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Elmer is urging opponents of the project to attend the upcoming hearings, but he doesn’t want further delays, as it may give Invenergy time to file for future power-purchase agreements with ISO New England.

“[D]elay can only help Invenergy at this point,” Elmer said. “CLF’s strategy going forward is to avoid further delays and get the EFSB to vote as soon as possible.”

All hearings are open to the public and are held at the Public Utilities Commission office, 89 Jefferson Blvd. in Warwick. The meetings typically begin at 10 a.m. and end no later than 4:30 p.m.