Burrillville has become the unlikely epicenter for controversy over natural gas. The town is home to a natural gas-fired power plant, two pipelines, and two compressor stations to push gas through the pipelines.
Now a new proposal would build another power plant in Burrillville. The proposal is drawing pushback from local residents.
Joseph Wagner built his house on more than two acres of land in Pascoag nearly 20 years ago. He knew two natural gas pipelines ran under the land. They’re marked with yellow-painted pipes that stick out from the ground where Wagner's property meets the road.
"Right now we are about 20 feet from the pipeline,” said Wagner. “As you can see, it's a beautiful day. You can’t hear any noise from it.”
Wagner's yard is a long, narrow and grassy corridor buffered on each side by trees. He said all you can hear is “the wind. That’s the other thing, the wind coming up the pipeline — it goes east to west… and it’s just beautiful out here.”
Wagner has a good relationship with Spectra Energy, the Houston-based company that owns and operates the pipelines. And that’s why he welcomes the latest proposal from a different company, Invenergy, to build a new natural gas-fired power plant in Burrillville.
“The town itself is going to gain tax revenue from that operation and that’s all I’m looking at,” said Wagner. “Keep the taxes as low as you can, because the economy is still weak."
Gov. Gina Raimondo also supports the project called the Clear River Energy Center. She stood by Invenergy company officials when they announced their proposal at a press conference over the summer. The governor thanked the company for choosing to do business in Rhode Island.
"And you should know that we are going to make sure that you are successful here,” said the governor. “This project is going to create several hundred jobs right away in the couple of years of construction,” and create between 25 to 30 permanent jobs for several decades.
Raimondo said this project will help families and businesses thrive in Rhode Island by lowering energy prices and making them predictable. The project would replace other less efficient power plants that are coming offline in the region, such as the coal-fired Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts.
“We have a problem today: Our prices are too high. Supply is too low. And we have climate change reality,” Raimondo outlined. “So this project is one piece of the puzzle."
And it’s a piece of the puzzle Invenergy is willing to pay for, including the cost of expanding a pipeline to keep gas flowing into the plant, even in the winter.
That’s important to note, according to Peter Shattuck, director of the Clean Energy Initiative at the environmental advocacy organization the Acadia Center.
“If companies like this are stepping forward and saying we can take of our own business, there's less of an argument for shifting the risk, for shifting the cost to consumers, which a number of states have proposed in order to publicly subsidize additional pipelines into the region,” said Shattuck.
The high cost of electricity has prompted New England governors to offer up their own proposal to subsidize the expansion of natural gas pipelines in the region. In Rhode Island, the General Assembly passed the Affordable Energy Security Act as part of this effort.
Right now, about half of New England’s electricity is produced by burning natural gas (last year 95 percent of Rhode Island's electricity came from burning natural gas). From a climate perspective, Shattuck said the shift from oil and coal to gas has reduced greenhouse gas emissions,“but that only goes so far. As we deepen on our reliance on natural gas, we could be foreclosing opportunities to leap frog ahead with clean energy technologies that can also meet our energy needs."
By clean energy, Shattuck means wind, solar, and hydro power. That’s the kind of clean energy technology some residents in Burrillville would prefer. More than 50 of them recently packed a town hall meeting to oppose the power plant proposal.
“Well I have a message for Invenergy: Go solar, or go home,” one resident told the town council.
When the town manager and council members said no say over the power plant proposal, another resident jumped in.
“So if you say the word gambling in the state, Newport and Lincoln get to vote on that in every single election. Why don’t we get to vote on expanding--?
A council member responded saying that was a question for the governor, Rep. Cale Keable, and other elected state representatives.
The resident pushed back saying, “Well, you’re our representatives. Why aren’t these people saying this?”
Residents are unsettled by the fact that the town knows so little about the project, yet it’s won the governor’s endorsement before the company files a permit application and before the state reviews the proposal.
John Niland, Invenergy’s director of business development, said it's standard for these types of projects to secure political support in the early stages.
"There have been projects I've been involved in where if the town or the state--if they don't want it, then why bother,” he said.
Niland points out the state will vet the project through the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board and hold public hearings in Burrillville and Providence.
The company will also conduct an open house, “where we will invite the residents to come and we will have all of our experts there and provide answers to questions,” said Niland. “The public will be able to have a one-on-one conversation with the folks that we'll bring to that open house and hopefully address those questions.”
And some Burrillville residents do question this project, which would create the largest power plant in the state. One of their concerns is pollution from hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas. There’s no fracking in Rhode Island, but the gas to fuel this power plant would come from fracked natural gas.
“What we do know is that natural gas is not this wonderful thing that’s just clean,” said Pascoag resident Jan Luby, who thinks fracking is wasteful because it requires billions of gallons of water. The fracked wastewater then has to be injected into deep wells for permanent storage.
Luby is also concerned about methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that escapes during fracking and leaks from pipes that carry natural gas.
“If there was oil leaking into the river or onto the ground and people saw it, they'd be upset about it, but they don’t see it,” said Luby. “So it's like this oil leak in the sky. It’s just there, only it's destroying the atmosphere. And hence all our climate problems.”
The proposed power plant is receiving wide support from labor unions, but resident David Bolender doesn't think most of those jobs will go to Burrillville residents.
“This isn't going to help this community thrive,” remarked Bolender. “If it was going to bring in 1000 jobs, yay us, a better tax base, something to chomp on, but we've got nothing. People are getting out and our property values tanked in the last 10 years… How much lower can our house values go at this point?”
“Are we going to remain a small rural town or are we going to be the capital of power plants in Rhode Island?" That’s a question Kathy Sherman poses to elected officials and state representatives.
For nearly 30 years, Sherman has lived across the street from Spectra Energy’s Burrillville facility, where the new power plant would be located. Noise was never an issue. But now that Spectra has upgrades underway, “the noise from the compressor station alone--it sounds like there are jet planes landing and taking off over there,” said Sherman.
If you stand at the end of Sherman’s driveway, she’s right. The noise fluctuates up and down. When it’s up, it sounds like an airport in the distance.
A spokeswoman for Spectra Energy said the facility complies with the federal government’s noise level requirements, which are set at 55 decibels. That should sound about as loud as an average dishwasher.
Still, Sherman wonders: If the upgrades at Spectra are supposed to be a small project, then what’s it going to be like with a 900-megawatt power plant across the street? Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we’d like to hear from you: email@example.com.