Decision Time: Burrillville Power Plant Proposal Comes Down to Three Points

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

A decision on the proposed Clear River Energy Center (CREC) could come as soon as June 20. Here’s what to expect at the hearing, or hearings if additional dates are needed.

The June 20 meeting is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. at the Public Utilities Commission, 89 Jefferson Blvd. in Warwick. If no decision is reached, additional meetings have been scheduled for June 21 at 1 p.m. and June 25 at 10 a.m. More meetings will be scheduled as necessary.

The three-member Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) isn’t permitted to deliberate privately, so it will publicly discuss, along with its staff, the elements of the application. The meetings are open to the public but no comment will be permitted by residents, the applicant, Invenergy Thermal Development, or groups designated as intervenors in the case.

In order for the CREC to be approved, the EFSB must find that the application satisfies three criteria:

The facility is needed for the state and/or region.

The power plant produces energy at the lowest “reasonable cost” to the consumer. And public health, safety, security, and welfare are considered when waivers are allowed.

The power plant doesn’t cause unacceptable harm to the environment and will enhance the socio-economic fabric of the state.

The board is expected to vote separately on each of the three requirements. At least two affirmative votes are needed for a criteria to pass. If at least one of the requirements isn’t approved, the application is denied. 

EFSB members Margaret Curran (chair), Janet Coit, and Meredith Brady are expected to discuss the merits of the 13 advisory opinions and the testimony of 45 witnesses.

Voting may occur regularly throughout the meetings, as the EFSB decides whether to accept, deny, or modify advisory opinions and other reports. Affirmative votes aren’t required of every report for the application to pass.

After the final votes on the application, the EFSB has 60 days to release a written decision. The decision may include stipulations or conditions that must be fulfilled for the license to be granted. The decision must also address the validity of the advisory opinions.

Any appeals of the decision must be made within 10 days of the release of the written order. An appeal would be heard by Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The license requires the approval of any outstanding permits. Two permits are currently pending. A public hearing is scheduled for June 19 for an air-pollution permit from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Public comment sessions will be held at Burrillville High School on June 19 from 3-5 p.m. and from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Comments can be submitted in writing until July 15.

A wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers is also outstanding. Public comment is open through July 3.

In closing arguments called “post-hearing briefs,” Invenergy and the primary objectors, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the town of Burrillville, explain their position on the nearly 1,000-megawatt fossil-fuel facility.

In their reports, CLF and Invenergy highlight the contradictory testimony of each other’s expert witnesses.

CLF and Burrillville place significant emphasis on Invenergy’s loss of its power-purchase agreement, called a capacity supply obligation (CSO), as proof that the electricity from the CREC isn’t needed to keep the regional power grid at capacity.

Invenergy argues that the CSO was revoked solely because of delays in the application process.

The Chicago-based developer emphasizes the favorable advisory opinion from the Division of Statewide Planning, which maintains that CREC is consistent with long-term planning goals. Invenergy also claims ratepayer savings of $228 million to $286 million over the life of the power plant. The project will also generate $1 billion in economic development and deliver tens of millions in tax revenue, according to Invenergy.

Negative advisory opinions from municipal departments in Burrillville and from the building inspector and planning and zoning boards “ignored factual evidence and distorted legal standards in an attempt to justify that opposition,” according to Invenergy.

The EFSB will likely have to decide if consumption-based or production-based accounting will be used to determine whether greenhouse-gas emissions from CREC prevent the state from meeting its reduction targets. Invenergy argues that the consumption-based method is more accurate because it not only shows that state emissions will decrease slightly but it is preferred by most state agencies and the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council.

CLF argues that production-based emissions is the most accurate and will make CREC the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the state.

Environmental impacts will also be a key topic of discussion for the EFSB. Several qualified experts have testified that the natural-gas/diesel power plant will degrade a diverse forest habitat and pinch point in a wildlife corridor that runs through New England. While Invenergy notes that it will take steps to minimize harm to habitat and offset any damage at the 67-acre site by protecting 300 acres of nearby open space.

Although no public input is permitted, a large crowd of residents, environmentalists, and members of organized labor are expected at the EFSB meetings.

“This is an issue for all Rhode Islanders and for the future of our state,” Burrillville town manager Michael Wood said. “Thirty-one other municipalities, dozens of environmental groups, tourism executives, and elected officials — including the then attorney general — have joined the town in opposition to the plant.”