As state regulators continue to mull whether to permit a 1,000-megawatt power plant in Burrillville, questions about its need are again being raised following a recent auction.
On Feb. 6, ISO New England, the regional grid operator, held its annual capacity auction, designed to ensure enough power would be available to meet demand in three years. Invenergy LLC, a Chicago-based company seeking permission to build the controversial, gas-fired power plant in Burrillville, failed to sell the second half of its power output during this year's auction. Without it, ISO New England was still able to buy an excess amount of power to meet projected demand in 2020-21.
"The auction concluded at the lowest price that is still enough to keep the most efficient resources in business," said Robert Ethier, vice president of market operations at ISO New England.
Invenergy opponents have seized on the results.
"The auction is confirmation that the Invenergy plant is not needed," said Jerry Elmer, an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation Rhode Island. Elmer has fought against the power plant since it was first proposed in 2015.
But Invenergy Business Development Director John Niland insists the auction results will not deter the company.
"Our plans remain unchanged," he said.
Niland says the auction doesn't account for possible power shortages in the future.
"One-third of existing power plants in the region have already announced plans to retire or are at risk of retirement," Niland said, citing ISO New England data. "Replacing this generation with cleaner, more-efficient sources … is critical to maintaining energy affordability and reliability for Rhode Islanders."
Gordon van Welie, ISO New England president and CEO, says gas infrastructure, including power plants, is needed.
"New England needs to improve fuel infrastructure so it can reliably support the grid as it evolves toward a system powered by battery-backed renewables and distributed generation," he told reporters during a media briefing last month. "Until that evolution is complete, the region will need resources [such as] natural gas-fired power plants."
Environmentalists, gas opponents and Burrillville residents, however, reject that line of thinking, saying other options, such as renewable energy resources, are becoming increasingly more financially viable.
To others, the issue is about much more than economics.
"When environmentalists talk about saving the spotted owl, the reality was that humanity would survive without the owl," said Peter Nightingale, an environmental activist and physics professor at the University of Rhode Island. "But here we're talking about the survival of humanity" due to climate change. •