Sen. Whitehouse on the fence about new RI power plant

$700-million facility proposed for Burrillville would be powered by fossil fuels

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As Rhode Island’s junior U.S. senator, Sheldon Whitehouse has made a national name for himself as an unwavering, vocal advocate of stopping climate change.

So what does Whitehouse think of Invenergy LLC’s proposal to build a new 900-megawatt power plant in Burrillville, which critics note will use carbon-emitting natural gas, but supporters emphasize will be cleaner than burning coal?

The short answer: he isn’t for it or against it.

“Senator Whitehouse is still reviewing the details of the proposed power plant,” Whitehouse spokesman Seth Larson told WPRI.com.

The senator’s hesitation illustrates the tricky position that local Democrats who want to reduce carbon emissions are in, as they try to balance the competing demands of voters who want lower energy bills and environmental activists who are strongly opposed to any new investment in fossil fuels.

“Generally speaking, he supports the near-term expansion of natural gas capacity in New England to ease winter price spikes on consumers as we transition to more renewable energy,” Larson explained. “These winter spikes are very localized because of national distribution system quirks. Other states don’t get hit and enjoy far lower prices than Rhode Island.”

That argument sounds similar to the one made by Gov. Gina Raimondo and other New England politicians who’ve said the region’s sky-high electricity prices require increased natural gas supplies, even as longer-term efforts are made to expand renewable energy.

At the same time, Larson took pains to emphasize that Whitehouse is aware of the concerns expressed by activists who protested outside Tuesday’s news conference unveiling the Burillville power plant proposal.

“The senator has significant concerns about methane leaks during natural gas production and elsewhere in the supply chain and has been urging EPA to pin down the size of the problem and take action to address it,” Larson said.

Chicago-based Invenergy is now seeking approval for the Burrillville power plant, dubbed the Clear River Energy Center and expected to cost $700 million, from the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board and other government bodies. The company says it hopes the facility will be up and running by the summer of 2019.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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