This article is the third installment of a month-long series, “Through the Muck,” tackling climate change in Rhode Island.
Governor Gina Raimondo has urged Rhode Island to “lead by example” in clean energy, and in many ways the state has done so. We have the nation’s first offshore wind farm, along with over 15,000 green jobs. And in 2014, Raimondo’s administration passed the Resilient Rhode Island Act, setting a series of benchmark goals for reducing the state’s carbon emissions below 1990 levels: 10 percent by 2020, 45 percent by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050.
Yet despite all of Rhode Island’s progressive environmental talk, Raimondo and the state’s climate leadership are looking like hypocrites. A proposed $700 million, 900 Megawatt natural gas power plant in Burrillville—one of the largest development projects in New England—threatens to prevent Rhode Island from reaching its aspirational climate goals. Chicago-based firm Invenergy claims that its Clear River Energy Center power plant will provide Rhode Island with electricity using a clean and reliable “bridge” fuel—natural gas—as New England transitions away from burning dirty coal and oil towards renewable energy. Indeed, efficient natural gas power plants release 50 percent less carbon emissions than coal-based ones. Power plants like Invenergy’s nevertheless rely on fossil fuels and release greenhouse gasses, not to mention the alarming levels of unaccounted methane leakages that occur when extracting and transporting fracked natural gas. So will Invenergy’s power plant actually help Rhode Island meet its own carbon emissions benchmarks?
“My answer to that question is a resounding and unequivocal no,” says J. Timmons Roberts, a Brown University professor specializing in climate change policy. “Rhode Island will be locked into a fossil-fuel future if this plant were built, just as the world is shifting rapidly away from fossil fuels.”
According to the Conservation Law Foundation, Invenergy’s power plant would pump seven billion pounds of carbon into the air annually, while producing 799 pounds of carbon emission per megawatt-hour, well above New England’s current average. Every single environmental group in Rhode Island has issued statements opposing Invenergy’s power plant and 32 towns and cities across the state have passed resolutions against it.
However, the agency responsible for approving Invenergy’s power plant, the Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB), is an unelected entity specifically designed to prevent local authorities from halting power plant construction. There are ultimately three factors the EFSB weighs in making its decision: the environmental and economic impacts of the project, and whether the power plant is actually needed. Each of these three issues has been bitterly contested in a legal battle between Invenergy and the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental law group representing Burrillville.
Power plants in New England are usually approved within months, but Invenergy has seen its project dragged through three years of hearings due to its own mistakes and strategic grassroots organizing efforts from the Burrillville community. The concerted resistance has delayed the project to the point where the original logic behind building a new natural gas power plant anywhere in New England may no longer hold up.
“Everyone keeps talking about this day when we’re going to have much more renewable energy when the grid can go through this transformation,” says Tim Faulkner, executive editor of ecoRI News. “But that’s already happening.”
At the moment, New England’s electrical grid is very much dependent on natural gas, which provides nearly 50 percent of the electricity for six states. Rhode Island is particularly embedded, with natural gas accounting for 92 percent of its electricity generation, according to the Energy Information Administration. Since Invenergy’s proposal in 2015, ISO New England— the nonprofit that manages the region’s electricity— has begun to shift more and more towards renewable energy and programs that focus on cutting energy consumption. Last year, no new large natural gas power plants received contracts to supply electricity for ISO New England. Instead, the ISO implemented measures to reduce energy demand by the equivalent of a large power plant.
All New England states have mandates committing them to increase their renewable energy production, and Rhode Island has announced plans to receive ten times more electricity from renewables in 2020 than it did in 2016.
In Burrillville’s corner of northwestern Rhode Island, climate science, business interests, community resistance and New England’s energy infrastructure have collided in a furious legal battle that will likely determine the next several decades of Rhode Island’s approach to climate change. At stake is a larger debate playing out across New England and the rest of the United States: Do we need to keep expanding natural gas infrastructure to meet our energy needs? And when confronting entrenched bureaucratic processes catering to the fossil fuel industry, how can communities engage in effective climate action?
On August 4, 2015, when Invenergy’s CEO Michael Polsky announced his vision for the power plant alongside Governor Raimondo, many residents of Burrillville assumed there was nothing they could do.
“At the time, I kind of shrugged my shoulders,” Paul Roselli, President of the Burrillville Land Trust, told the Independent. “I thought that since it had the Governor’s support it was a done deal.”
Still, inspired by small initial protests from organizations like FANG (Fighting Against Natural Gas), Roselli decided he should do something too. A longtime Burrillville resident and documentary filmmaker, Roselli wanted to make sure that his community protected their state’s environmental interests and the region’s beautiful and sensitive contiguous forest. After organizing a public meeting to hear his neighbors’ thoughts on the plant, Roselli was unsurprised to hear that the overwhelming majority were opposed to its construction.
Burrillville already hosts the 560 megawatt Ocean State power plant, built in 1986. The Algonquin natural gas pipeline cuts across this corner of Rhode Island on its way to Connecticut, making Burrillville an ideal location for power plants to tap into existing natural gas infrastructure.
How the Burrillville community feels about another power plant carries little weight in Invenergy’s approval process. The Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) is the sole authority tasked with reviewing all energy-related construction projects across the state, and it is comprised of just three people: the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission, the Director of the Department of Environmental Management and the Associate Director of the Administration of Planning.
From its inception, the EFSB has been a means to streamline the application process for power plant projects. Victoria Lederberg, the state legislator who proposed the creation of the EFSB in 1986, touted the board as “one-stop shopping” for developers. Prior to the EFSB, there was no single authority to oversee development projects, which were subject to regulation by a variety of overlapping agencies, according to Lederberg. Projects were also more vulnerable to cries of NIMBYism (“Not in my back yard!”) from local opposition.
But multiple state Senators expressed concern that the siting board would override the authority of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The bill was nonetheless approved, with one major change. Initially Lederberg had stated that the General Assembly would have the opportunity to ratify or reverse the EFSB’s decision.
“I believe...that the General Assembly, which represents the entire state, is the correct forum to render the final, statewide perspective in issuing a permit to a facility,” Lederberg wrote one year earlier in a 1985 Providence Journal editorial.
And yet this provision—which could have provided a measure of public accountability—was removed from the bill on the grounds that “it was no longer needed,” according to Lederberg.
“The EFSB was made to avoid the consequences of a democracy,” Steve Ahlquist, a local journalist for Uprise.com, told the Independent. “We should have democratic control over the way we produce our power.”
Determined to find Invenergy’s legal pressure points in spite of the EFSB, Roselli and other community activists like Burrillville Against Spectra Expansion identified what their town could do. Burrillville could refuse to offer Invenergy a tax break, deny Invenergy access to its water—power plants need thousands of gallons to cool off their turbines each day—and the Town Council could pass a resolution against the power plant. Though the town eventually negotiated a tax break (to pay for legal costs in litigation against the plant), Invenergy has still been struggling unsuccessfully to secure a long term water supply contract with another municipality. (A contract between Invenergy and the town of Johnston is caught in a lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation, with support from the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office.)
The Burrillville community has made itself a presence at every EFSB meeting, with dozens of residents and supporters wearing t-shirts reading “We are not powerless” and holding the now infamous yellow “No new power plant” signs. For years, they have been refining their talking points during public comment opportunities at EFSB hearings.
Roselli wanted to move the fight beyond Burrillville, spearheading a massive public awareness campaign across the state. In an attempt to raise concerns for the power plant’s health and environmental impacts, he provided dozens of “Learn the Facts” presentations across the state based on information from Invenergy’s own application, leading the vast majority of Rhode Island’s cities and towns to formally oppose the power plant.
“The (message) that resonated really well was the loss of municipal control,” Roselli says. “Here’s a three-person state agency (the EFSB) that has complete control over where these things are located and permitted, and their authority is absolute.”
Both Connecticut and Massachusetts have nine-member siting boards that are significantly more democratic than Rhode Island’s. Connecticut’s siting council includes five members of the public, two of whom are expected to be experienced in ecology. Likewise, Massachusetts’ siting board contains three members of the public, with one person knowledgeable about environmental issues and another specializing in energy.
Since 2016, there have been concerted efforts to revise the EFSB—earlier this year, the RI House of Representatives voted unanimously to expand the EFSB to include two members of the public, along with the director of the Department of Health and the state Fire Marshal. But the bill was dead on arrival at the state Senate, tabled and “held for further review.”
The lack of reform is not surprising, because the EFSB has proven to be a convenient way for politicians to remove themselves from public accountability. For instance, one year after expressing support for Invenergy’s project, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse backpedaled and refused to take a position, saying that it would be up to the EFSB. “This is a very serious decision and I have trust in the process...and we have to let it play out,” he told WPRI in 2016.
During the run up to her 2018 re-election campaign, incumbent Governor Raimondo received key endorsements and thousands of dollars in donations from construction unions who would stand to benefit from Invenergy’s power plant. The President of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, Michael Sabitoni, has been one of the most vocal advocates of the Invenergy power plant because it will generate hundreds of short term construction jobs.
“We support everything that’s practical, anything that’s going to move the economy forward,” Sabitoni told the Independent. “We build everything, whatever it is we’ll build it all.”
Since Raimondo’s re-election campaign began in 2014, the governor has received over $87,000 in donations from individuals living in Chicago—where Invenergy is based and where Raimondo has traveled to attend private fundraisers—according to the Providence Journal. The CEO of Invenergy has donated $1000 to Raimondo’s campaign each year.
Raimondo, who initially championed Invenergy’s power plant, has recently taken a neutral stance and echoed Whitehouse in citing the importance of “trusting the process.”
“Nobody can be against (the power plant), you’re either neutral or you’re for it,” Uprise’s Steve Ahlquist says. “Because otherwise that would be a betrayal of the billionaires that are building it.”
While community resistance has played an essential role in slowing the power plant’s approval process, what will ultimately stop the plant from being built is the fact that it appears no longer needed to support New England’s energy infrastructure.
In 2015, ISO New England, which manages the region’s energy, expressed concerns over replacing the electricity generated by older power plants that would be shut down in the next few years. ISO gave Invenergy a contract to provide electricity starting in 2020, on the assumption that it would be up and running by then. However, given Invenergy’s repeated delays (it is clear that by no means will the project be complete in time), ISO received federal approval on Nov. 30th to cancel its contract with the company’s power plant.
“This is the first time in the history of ISO that it has ever, ever involuntarily terminated a (contract) with a generator,” says Jerry Elmer, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation. “The ISO is saying publicly, we don’t want Invenergy, we don’t need Invenergy, and we don’t anticipate wanting or needing Invenergy in the future.”
From the start, Elmer has been an emphatic and relentless opponent of Invenergy. A longtime activist, Elmer came of age in the Vietnam War and not only publicly refused to participate in the draft but burglarized over a dozen draft boards for the War Resisters League (he would go on to become the only convicted felon to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1990). Elmer has since directed his tenacity towards dismantling the natural gas narrative that frames the need for a new power plant in Rhode Island in the first place.
On October 31st, Elmer succeeded in convincing the EFSB to reject a key advisory opinion that Invenergy touted as evidence that it was needed to supply New England’s electrical grid. The advisory opinion, written by a single member of the Public Utilities Commission, told the state in 2016 that the power plant was necessary to meet clean energy goals. One EFSB member called the advisory opinion “stale” given the changes in the past two years..
And yet the narrative of the need for more natural gas infrastructure persists on the grounds that it is clean and reliable. While cleaner than coal, natural gas emits a lot of carbon when it’s burned. Though Rhode Island’s Office of Energy Resources said in 2016 that the power plant “will not cause CO2 emissions across the region to increase,” that is because they are using a “consumption-based” accounting metric.
Since Rhode Island only accounts for six percent of electricity usage from New England’s collective grid, Invenergy counts “94 percent of (its) carbon emissions...as being from ‘out of state’ and those emissions then disappear from our ledgers,” climate policy expert J. Timmons Roberts testified against Invenergy. “In contrast, when you use production-based accounting, you have to account for the carbon emissions produced or created here in Rhode Island.”
Invenergy’s claim to help reduce state emissions is really just an “accounting trick.”
In October, a Providence Journal editorial defended the Invenergy power plant on these grounds: “Zealots who claim we no longer need natural gas plants—in part because of more expensive renewable energy—are not living in the real world, experts note. We do not yet have the affordable means to store sufficient energy to supply the region’s needs when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. It may be decades before that happens.”
It’s not that we immediately need to get rid of all natural gas power plants New England currently relies on—it’s that we don’t need any more of them. This is a fact underscored by the energy market itself. The ISO New England forecast earlier this year predicted that regional demand for electricity will decrease over the next ten years. Other studies, like a recent report by the nonpartisan Rocky Mountain Institute, found that renewable energy and other alternative approaches to fossil fuels can be just as reliable as natural gas, with zero harmful emissions.
If natural gas is a bridge to renewables, “we should be exiting the bridge at this point,” says Erika Niedowski, director of the RI Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy group. “The climate crisis isn’t getting less urgent, it’s getting more urgent.”
Historically, there has been a bias in discussions around energy policy towards expanding our energy supply rather than reducing our demand, Niedowski says. We could start to think about how to use less electricity—saving money—and when we do use it to make sure we are being as efficient as possible. ISO New England is already doing this through successful “demand response” programs that pay industrial manufacturers and other major energy consumers in Vermont and Connecticut to use less electricity.
Other states across New England are responding to the economic and environmental incentives of clean energy and acting accordingly. Last year, the Connecticut Energy Siting Council rejected a large natural gas power plant proposal in Killingly—right across the border from Burrillville.
Why? The Council said the power plant was “not necessary” for the state’s energy reliability. Rhode Island’s EFSB will likely be making its own decision regarding Invenergy’s proposed project in early 2019, as hearings continue through February on the merits of the so-called “bridge” fuel power plant.
Elmer is confident that Invenergy’s power plant will be rejected. “Invenergy is a zombie,” he says. “It is as good as dead.”
JACK BROOK B’19 is indebted to Steve Ahlquist for his excellent reporting covering Invenergy’s hearings for the past three years and encourages you to donate to his site, Upriseri.com.