Power Plant Hearings End, Decision This Summer

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WARWICK, R.I. — The final hearings for the proposed Burrillville power plant ended April 3, with more than two days of questions for John Niland, director of business development for Invenergy Thermal Development LLC.

Niland, the project manager and frontman for the proposed Clear River Energy Center (CREC), endured a range of questions about the fossil-fuel facility and inconsistencies that have arisen since the project was announced in August 2015.

The CREC application has the distinction of being the lengthiest application since the Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) was formed in 1986. Although a decision is expected by early summer, the process will likely be extended on appeal by the losing side.

Throughout the hearings, the main opponents, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the town of Burrillville, focused on the power plant’s negative environmental impacts, greenhouse-gas emissions, and the lack of need for a nearly 1,000-megawatt natural-gas/diesel-powered facility.

CLF senior attorney Jerry Elmer spent considerable time addressing Invenergy’s struggle to receive power-purchase agreements from ISO New England, the operator of the regional electric grid. In several documents, Niland and Invenergy suggested that the project hinged on securing a capacity supply obligation (CSO). 

Chicago-based Invenergy was awarded a CSO, but later had it rescinded by ISO New England. It was the first time a CSO had been recalled. Elmer argued that losing the CSO proves there is an abundance of electricity flowing to the regional power grid.

Invenergy attorney Michael Blazer answered the assertions that the power plant isn’t necessary by referring to ISO New England’s recently released 2019 Regional Energy Outlook. The report states a need for so-called “full-time, low-emission power sources” to reduce blackouts during peak electric demand, especially when wind turbines and solar arrays aren’t generating power.

The report also noted that higher costs of oil, coal, and nuclear are forcing many traditional power plants to close. As a result, some 5,000 megawatts of electricity generation in New England are at risk of retirement. Battery storage, currently, is too inadequate to supplant intermittent renewable energy.

Niland inferred that the CREC wouldn’t impeded emission-reduction goals because it would be generating less electricity and fewer emissions by 2050 when reduction goals are at their highest.

Burrillville town attorney Michael McElroy focused on environmental impacts, truck traffic, and noise.

At the April 3 hearing, Niland admitted there wouldn’t be a full-time security presence at the power plant but that a control room at the plant would perform surveillance and report incidents to the police and fire departments.

McElroy also noted that Invenergy’s controversial agreement to supply cooling water to CREC, via the Benn Water company, from Fall River, Mass., wouldn’t be renewed by that city’s water board.

The final issue debated was perhaps one of the most significant. Two advisory opinions from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) stated that biodiversity studies of at least a year are needed to determine the full environmental impact of the power plant. Under questioning from Blazer, Niland stated the Invenergy complied with input from DEM and its own environmental engineer, ESS Group. Blazer pointed to correspondence with DEM asking for guidance.

At the March 26 hearing, deputy chief of wildlife at DEM Jason Osenkowski said a lengthier survey was needed to fully capture the biological habitat of the site. He later added that the project poses unacceptable harm to the site.

At the April 3 hearing, Blazer pressed Niland to agree that Invenergy will conduct further surveys if asked by DEM.

EFSB chairwoman Margaret Curran cast the issue in a different light when she asked Niland if he was aware that DEM “does not have the burden of proof” to show that CREC doesn’t pose unacceptable harm to the environment.

“Yes,” Niland responded.

What lies ahead
CLF, Burrillville, Invenergy, the Office of Energy Resources, the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, and other intervenors have until May 17 to submit written closing arguments. The statements can’t exceed 50 pages.

The three-person EFSB isn’t permitted to discuss the application in private, instead it will hold open meetings to review the arguments. Anyone may attend, but there will not be any discourse with the intervenors nor will public comment be allowed.

It’s not clear how long after the discussions conclude that the EFSB will vote on the project, but CLF estimates that the “final order” will be announced between July 4 and Labor Day.

The decision isn’t technically official until a detailed written order is released by the EFSB explaining its vote. Writing the order may take up to two months. Once it’s issued, the losing side will likely appeal the decision to Rhode Island Supreme Court. The appeal process could last a year or longer. If the application is approved, construction can begin during the appeal process. But banks and lenders may wait unit the appeal concludes before financing the project.

CLF has suggested that the Supreme Court is deferential to the EFSB and that the likelihood of a successful appeal is low.

DEM permits are still pending for air pollution and wetlands alternation. The Army Corps of Engineers must also issue a permit. The project can be approved by the EFSB with stipulations that Invenergy receives any outstanding permits. The public will be able to comment on the permits once drafts are issued.

If approved, the CREC is expected to be operational by May 31, 2023. However, one of the three natural-gas turbines at Invenergy’s recently built Lackawanna Energy Center in Jessup, Penn., was built and running within two years.