Hearings Set to Resume for Burrillville Power Plant

New report has encouraging news about the growing influence of renewable energy

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Hearings for the fossil-fuel power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville, R.I., are scheduled to resume this week with the questioning of experts about the environmental impacts of the $1 billion energy facility.

Traffic, an access road, biodiversity impacts, stormwater runoff, and soil erosion will be analyzed before the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), followed by the questioning of experts from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, who are expected to speak about the cumulative impacts of the facility and the overall harm to the environment.

Some of the more compelling cross-examination is expected later this month or in early April, when Invenergy’s director of business development, John Niland, takes questions from Jerry Elmer of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and Burrillville town attorney Michael McElroy.

Elmer is expected to point to instances when Niland made dubious public statements about the proposed power plant’s financial benefits to ratepayers.

“CLF plans to walk Niland through a series of lies that Invenergy has told to the public, to the EFSB, to the parties, to the ISO (New England), and to the (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission),” Elmer said.

The EFSB has two pending motions to act on. One from CLF seeks to add to evidence the results from the recent power-purchase auction for New England. Invenergy wants to strike the testimony from one of CLF’s most important experts, Robert Fagan. Fagan is an energy analyst who testified that the nearly 1,000-megawatt natural-gas/diesel power plant isn’t necessary to keep the power grid running. Invenergy disagrees with Fagan’s analysis for defining long-term need and argues that his testimony should be thrown out.

The hearings are scheduled to begin March 12 and run intermittently through April. They will be held at the Office of the Public Utilities Commission, 89 Jefferson Blvd. in Warwick. Hearings begin at 10 a.m.

Once the hearings end, attorneys will be given at least a month to prepare final written arguments. The three-member EFSB will then discuss the case in open session for as long as needed, before rendering a decision. An appeal can only be filed after the EFSB releases its written decision, a process that may take a month.

Growing influence of renewables
The operator of the regional power grid, ISO New England, issued its annual State of Grid report in February and it included encouraging news about the growing influence of renewable energy.

In previous reports, ISO New England has treated renewables as a distant era in energy, with nominal influence on the energy supply in the near and medium term.

But it’s now clear that wind and solar have arrived and are growing quickly. In its tracking of proposed electrify projects, ISO New England calculated 13,455 megawatts from wind projects and 3,160 megawatts from natural-gas projects.

The report notes that rooftop solar is helping cut spikes in demand during the summer and having a less pronounced impact when winter electricity spikes.

According to the report, the power grid is changing from a mix of oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear to a mix of on-demand natural-gas power facilities coupled with large sources of wind, solar, and imported hydropower.

In its recent power-purchase auction, ISO New England set its lowest price in six years. The total auction secured 34,839 megawatts of electricity for the years 2022 and 2023, including 783 megawatts of new power generation — most of which went to the recently revived natural-gas Killingly Energy Center proposed for Killingly, Conn. Vineyard Wind received 54 megawatts from a secondary auction. In a first, the residential solar developer Sunrun Inc. received 20 megawatts for a solar-battery system it plans to market.

One gray area is power-plant retirements. ISO New England identified some 5,000 megawatts of electricity from conventional power plants as at-risk of retirement “in the coming years,” including the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire and the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass., is scheduled to be shut down in May.

ISO New England’s president and CEO, Gordon van Welie, said the risk of retiring power plants and the intermittency of renewable energy raises fear of electrify shortage during cold snaps, when natural-gas plants can lose access to their fuel. So far, he said, this winter has been mild and stored supplies of liquifed natural gas and diesel oil helped meet periods of high demand during two brief cold events.

Overall, the auction shows New England has enough electricity capacity to meet demand, but natural-gas pipelines and infrastructure for renewable energy are needed to meet peak power needs.

“New England has enough capacity,” van Welie said. “The question is whether there will be enough fuel for all those power plants to generate electricity, whether the fuel is natural gas, oil, wind, or sun.”

Auction prices could increase in about 10 years, van Welie said, as the transportation and thermal heat sectors shift from fossil fuels to the grid to meet mandated reductions in carbon emissions.

He professed a fondness for carbon pricing, saying he was disappointed that Vermont recently killed legislation for a statewide carbon tax.

“In the long run, it’s the right answer for the region,” van Welie said.