By Alex Kuffner Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE — Invenergy has failed to sell the second half of the power output of its proposed fossil fuel-burning power plant in Burrillville to the regional electric grid.
The results announced Thursday of an auction held by Independent System Operator New England represent a blow to the controversial power plant, now estimated at $1 billion, appearing to undermine Invenergy’s claim that the region needs the facility of up to 1,000 megawatts as older generators retire.
In a similar auction a year ago, Invenergy sold 485 megawatts of power, equivalent to the capacity of one of the plant’s two generating systems, but was unable to sell the power from the other system. The Chicago-based company came back again for Monday’s auction but its bid was not selected.
Invenergy maintains that the auction results will not affect its commitment to move forward with the Clear River Energy Center, a combined-cycle plant that would primarily burn natural gas.
“While our bid was not selected in the latest capacity auction, prior auction results have confirmed the need for the Clear River Energy Center, and our plans remain unchanged,” director of business development John Niland said in a statement.
Every February, ISO-NE, the nonprofit that manages the regional power system, holds an auction to secure generating capacity three years before it’s needed. This week’s auction tied up power for the 2020-2021 supply year and included a significant amount of energy conservation commitments but no supplies from proposed new power plants.
Invenergy argues that the auction represents only a snapshot of the market in that supply year and does not contradict its argument that in the bigger picture New England is facing a shortfall in generation. The company cites data from ISO-NE that show that over the past four years 4,200 megawatts of generation have been taken off line in New England while another 6,000 megawatts are considered at risk of retirement.
“Replacing this generation with cleaner, more efficient sources like Clear River is critical to maintaining energy affordability and reliability for Rhode Islanders,” Niland said.
But opponents of the plant say that renewable sources can fill in any need for new power in New England. The auction results show that there is a surplus of potential power supplies that can step in, according to Jerry Elmer, staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. In the ISO-NE zone that includes Rhode Island the surplus is nearly twice the capacity of the Burrillville proposal.
“The ISO is telling us clearly that the plant is just not needed,” Elmer said.
The project application was submitted to the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board more than a year ago. A decision was expected by now, but the process was delayed as Invenergy tied up a necessary supply of water. But there are still unanswered questions about the project and both the CLF and the Town of Burrillville have filed motions to have the application dismissed.
Burrillville also seized on the auction results as evidence that the project is ill-conceived, pointing specifically to the low clearing price, which was 25 percent less than in 2016.
“The prices for both capacity and energy are now so low in this market that it appears that Invenergy should rethink whether this plant is financially viable at all,” Michael McElroy, lawyer for the town, said in a statement.
The auction, however, far from sounds the death knell for the power plant. Invenergy still has time to sell the remaining power. Under ISO-NE’s rules, the company must be ready to start feeding the first half of its power to the grid by June 1, 2019, but it can request a one-year deferral.
If Invenergy is successful in next year’s auction, it could probably still proceed without a hitch. If it’s not, however, more serious questions could be raised.
Invenergy has always said that it could secure financing with only a commitment to sell half the plant’s power, said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association.
But that’s the company’s concern, he said. Consumers, on the other hand, are benefiting from competition among suppliers.
“All the risk is on them,” Dolan said of Invenergy. “Consumers won’t be on the hook if they can’t pull it off.”