There were two big reveals at the first day of the PUC evidentiary hearing in Warwick on Monday. First, John Niland, director of development for Invenergy, admitted under oath that he knowingly gave false information to the EFSB at the March 31, 2016 EFSB hearing held at the Burrillville High School. Second, Invenergy’s proposed plant will not be clean: It’s emissions will be higher than the the current New England average of all power plants.
Everyone seemed surprised that the evidentiary hearing at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regarding Invenergy’s proposed $700 million fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant for the Town of Burrillville wasn’t packed with Burrillville residents. The Warwick police officer seated at the back of the room looked almost bored. Michael McElroy rescinded his motion to hold the hearing in a larger venue because, as his co-counsel Oleg Nikolyszyn said, “there are plenty of seats.” Of course, holding the meeting 40 minutes outside Burrillville during a work day was a surefire way to limit attendance.
The Public Utilities Commission hearing is being held to help the one PUC commissioner that did not recuse himself craft an opinion on whether or not the plant is needed and what effects the plant will have on ratepayers. The one commissioner is lawyer Herbert F. DeSimone, Jr.. Of his co-commissioners, Margaret Curran is on the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), the body ultimately deciding on Invenergy’s application. Obviously she cannot write an advisory opinion to herself. Marion Gold is on record for having supported the plant during her stint as the executive director of the RI Office of Energy Resources. This leaves only Herbert DeSimone on the board. He will author the advisory opinion to the EFSB.
For what it’s worth DeSimone ruled early on that having only one person on the board does not violate any rules, as he will not be making any decisions, but will simply be crafting an advisory opinion.
Lawyers Alan Shoer, representing Invenergy and Jerry Elmer, representing the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), delivered opening statements. Shoer argued that the plant is needed, that it will reduce air emissions and save ratepayers money. Elmer explained that Invenergy’s promises were unlikely.
The first witness was Building Trades president Michael Sabitoni. He testified on the “socio-economic impacts of project” i.e., the jobs. Elmer objected, because jobs are not within the scope of this hearing. DeSimone overruled Elmer, saying, “I’ll allow the statement to stand but I’ll give it the weight that is appropriate.”
Under grilling from Burrilville’s lawyer Michael McElroy, Sabitoni estimated that 80 percent of the jobs created by this project will be from Rhode Island. He had no estimates on the number of jobs that will be created for Burrillville. He said that the members of his unions will be well placed to get the more permanent jobs on offer at the plant as well.
Next up was John Niland, director of development at Invenergy. His testimony stretched out for over 80 minutes, and there were some interesting exchanges along the way.
Under oath and under the examination of Jerry Elmer, Niland admitted that when he said, to the EFSB on March 31 in Burrillville, that Rhode Islanders would save $280 million on electricity after the new plant was built, he knew the number was wrong. He said that he didn’t have a better number to give, so he went with the older, wrong number. The true savings cannot be over $30 million, and could be closer to zero, maintains the CLF.
Under examination, Jerry Elmer also forced Niland to concede that Invenergy’s claim that coal and oil together account for 28 percent of New England’s energy footprint is incorrect. The true number is closer to six percent.
Niland claimed that since Invenergy sold half it’s output in the most recent energy auction, the plant is needed, by definition. Burrillville’s lawyer Michael McElroy pointed out that if only half the proposed plant’s energy is sold, then by Niland’s own logic only half the plant is needed. And if half the plant is all that’s needed, savings to ratepayers can be expected to be “substantially less.”
The growth of renewable energy sources will reduce the need for the power plant over time, said Niland. The plant has a life expectancy of 40 years. Niland knows of LNG plants still operating after 60 years. Niland admitted that Rhode Island’s dependency on fossil fuels will increase once the plant is built. If the plant is built, Rhode Island’s carbon footprint will go up, admitted Niland. Though technically, said Niland, given that RI is a net energy importer our emissions, “could be reduced.”
McElroy was not happy with Niland’s caveat. Within Rhode Island’s borders, asked McElroy, “Emissions will go up, correct?”
“I believe so,” said Niland.
McElroy asked about why Burrillville was chosen as a location for the plant. Niland said that the location was chosen due to its proximity to the Algonquin gas pipeline and electrical transmission wires. (Both of which were updated recently, I should note.) Niland’s job is to locate and develop projects like the one planned for Burrillville. He was initially lured here because of the state’s high energy prices, near $17 a killowatt hour. The new lower prices at the recent energy auction, closer to $7, will probably reduce interest in bringing large projects like this to the region, said Niland. If an energy plant doesn’t clear the energy auction, said Niland, it isn’t needed.
The next and last witness for Invenergy was Ryan Hardy. Hardy is the person who prepared Invenergy’s report that calculated the rate savings should the plant be built. Jerry Elmer began his cross examination by handing Hardy a calculator and asking him to run the numbers, based on Invenergy’s own specs. After a long pause, Hardy came up with the plant producing 817 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour. Hardy’s written testimony was 760 pounds. Ryan countered that he was basing his number on estimates of actual plant use, which he estimated to be about 70 percent of capacity. The numbers Elmer had him calculate were maximum possible output.
Also, said Hardy, the plant will be “primarily run on LNG, never on fuel oil, unless gas is not available.”
However, both of Hardy’s estimates are over the New England average, meaning that the plant can’t reduce emissions, because the plant’s emissions are higher than the average plant emissions in New England.
Elmer asked Hardy about ratepayer savings next. “Was your analysis of FCA-10 [the electricity auction] based on selling both turbines?”
“Yes,” said Hardy.
“Were you wrong about that?”
“Was it reasonable for Niland to estimate savings of $280 million when he knew otherwise?”
“Yes,” said Ryan.
You can read Jerry Elmer’s thoughts about day one of the hearing here.