It’s Possible

Apr 10, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

A walk along Boston Harbor today reveals a waterfront that’s both beautiful and vibrant. Water taxis and sailboats skim its waters; tourists and locals stroll along its shores; fishermen catch striped bass right off the docks; and waterside restaurants brighten the evening.

It’s hard to believe that, barely a generation ago, this same harbor was in crisis, a dirty and rancid stew of raw sewage and toxic pollution. Back then, it was deemed the problem too big, too dirty, too impossible to solve. No one wanted to step up and do anything about it. But, rather than back down from this challenge, we at CLF declared we were going to take back Boston Harbor from the polluters.

And we did.

Cleaning up Boston Harbor is just one of the seemingly impossible challenges CLF has taken on – and won.

Thanks to the support of people like you, the remarkable transformation of Boston Harbor is just one of the seemingly impossible challenges CLF has taken on – and won – in our nearly 50-year history.

It was really kind of outrageous at the time that our small band of lawyers and policy advocates took on both the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Environmental Protection Agency – and won. No one then could have predicted that this was going to be a $4.5 billion, generational effort to rebuild metropolitan Boston’s entire water, sewer, and stormwater systems – or that our efforts to ensure clean water drains into Boston Harbor would still be ongoing today.

You can’t deny the results. Today, Boston Harbor is swimmable and fishable. Boston now has a world-class water and sewer authority and a National Park celebrating the Boston Harbor Islands. Billions of dollars were invested in real estate, producing thousands of jobs around the harbor in the process. And Boston Harbor now has its own watchdog – Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a group CLF helped form to carry our vigilance forward.

While CLF was just the point of the spear that made all of this happen, it was a very sharp point directed very strategically.

Boston Harbor, iconic though it is, was not the first time CLF had taken on a seemingly impossible challenge. And it certainly wasn’t the last. Oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank? Stopped. A four-lane highway through Franconia Notch? Blocked. A destructive dam on the Penobscot River? Defeated. Big coal in Massachusetts? Shutting down. The largest landfill in Rhode Island flouting the Clean Air Act? Called to account. Pollution choking Lake Champlain? Getting cleaned up for the benefit of all.

And that’s the short list.

Now, today, in 2015, we are facing the defining challenge of our age – climate change. It’s bigger and more complex than anything we’ve tackled before, and it’s going to touch everything we all hold dear about New England: our communities, our environment, and our livelihoods.

But it’s not an impossible challenge, despite inaction and denial at so many levels of our government. Yes, we need international and national leadership on climate change, but let’s be clear: The real solutions are going to be forged at the state and regional levels and that’s where CLF shines. This is CLF’s moment.

Dealing with climate change is going to take every tool in our toolbox, every ounce of expertise we have, every innovative idea we can generate, and every ally we can muster. It won’t be easy, and I would be misleading you if I didn’t note that it’s already too late to head off some of the climate impacts New England will experience.

But, frankly, it’s when we’re told that a challenge can’t be overcome that we are at our most bold, our most creative, and our most tenacious. I know – because in my 30 years with CLF, I’ve seen us surmount the impossible time and time again.

What really keeps us moving forward, tackling New England’s biggest environmental challenges, is our commitment to all of you – and to people and communities large and small across New England. For nearly 50 years, people like you have been our critical partners in what’s possible. You have helped CLF close polluting power plants, clean up New England’s air and water, bolster the health of our oceans, and boost the vitality of our communities.

You are helping New England thrive – for people today and for future generations tomorrow. We’re honored to have you by our side and thank you for your commitment to making a difference.

This April, we’re seeking to raise $25,000 toward our efforts to solve New England’s seemingly impossible environmental challenges – ensuring clean air and clean water, healthy oceans and healthy communities for all. Please give, now, as generously as you can, to help us reach this goal.







CLF Statement on Brayton Point Power Plant’s Notice of Intention to Shut Down by 2017

Jan 27, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF Calls Plan Good News for Mass. and New England Communities and Environment, Underscores Need for Planning to Ensure Stable and Just Transition

In response to the notice from the owners of the Brayton Point power plant to ISO New England announcing the company’s intentions of retiring all units of the Brayton Point coal- and oil-fired power plant by 2017, the Conservation Law Foundation issued the following statement:

“This announcement provides certainty about the closure of the Brayton Point power plant. The fact that the largest coal- and oil-fired power plant in New England will definitively close by June of 2017 is good news for the communities of Massachusetts and New England, and is an important step on our path to a cleaner energy future and healthy environment,” said Seth Kaplan, Vice President for Policy and Climate Advocacy at Conservation Law Foundation. “CLF has been sounding the alarm about the financial and environmental issues that signaled the end was near for the plant. Planning for a stable and just transition must move forward immediately to ensure clean, reliable electricity for the local community and for the broader environmental and economic benefit of the Commonwealth and the region.”

Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) protects New England’s environment for the benefit of all people. Using the law, science and the market, CLF creates solutions that preserve natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy region-wide. Founded in1966, CLF is a nonprofit, member-supported organization with offices in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

A Quest for Clean Air

Dec 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

I’d like to introduce you to two CLF members who are making a difference for people and communities in New England.

Tiffany Mellers is a working mom and Army reservist who lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the shadow of Bridgeport Harbor Station, a coal- and oil-burning power plant that has been polluting that city for nearly 50 years. Tiffany’s young daughters, Jaysa and Crystal, both suffer from asthma – so severe on some days as to land Jaysa in the hospital. That makes Tiffany tireless in her quest to stop dangerous air pollution and secure a healthier future for her girls and her community.

Pauline Rodrigues lives in Somerset, Massachusetts, where, in October, she and her neighbors breathed a collective sigh of relief when Brayton Point announced it would shut down in 2017. Now, Pauline and her community are working with CLF to make sure that Somerset and Massachusetts seize on this opportunity to replace Brayton Point with a clean, no-carbon alternative that will bring good jobs and economic prosperity back to this working-class town.

In the past three years, CLF, with your support, has helped to shut down three New England coal plants, while fiercely advocating for clean, renewable alternatives and good policy to spur that investment and bring energy prices down. But Tiffany’s and Pauline’s stories remind us that, although coal’s dirty legacy is coming to an end in New England, we still have much to do for communities like Bridgeport, where old coal plants are digging in their heels, and for towns in transition like Somerset.

Getting off of coal and onto clean energy takes smart, passionate people working day and night over many years. We rely on the support of members and supporters like you to fund that work and the cutting-edge research, thoughtful analysis, and community outreach that make it successful.

As we head into the final weeks of our year-end campaign, I want to ask you to please make a gift to CLF, today. We need to raise $40,000 online this holiday season so that together we can continue to help people like Tiffany and Pauline realize a better future for their families and their communities – and for all of New England.

Together, we can make New England the first coal-free region in the country, foster life-changing innovation, and make sure that our region lives up to its mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. Thank you for joining this important cause and being part of the CLF community.

Familiar Cautionary Tale Unfolding at Mt. Tom

Mar 7, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Mount Tom power plant in Holyoke, MA.

A familiar story appears to be unfolding at the Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke, Massachusetts. According to recently released documents, the owner submitted what is known as a Dynamic Delist Bid with ISO New England (ISO-NE), the operator of the New England electricity system and markets, and ISO-NE accepted the bid.

This means that during the 2016-2017 capacity commitment period the plant will not be obligated to run and will not receive any capacity payments. The plant could still run and be paid for the electricity it makes, but the act of de-listing means that Mt. Tom’s owner thinks there is a significant chance it will not be economic for the plant to run during that year.

This is not surprising given the sharp decline in how often the plant has been running over the past few years:

This news is particularly significant for two reasons:

  • First, submitting a de-list bid to leave the market for one year has been the first step on the path to retirement for two other coal-fired plants in Massachusetts, Somerset Station and Salem Harbor Station;
  • and Second, the fact that ISO-NE accepted the de-list bid means that it determined that Mt. Tom can exit the capacity market for that timeframe without any impact on reliability. That’s a good indication that Mt. Tom could permanently retire without impacting the system, although some additional analysis would need to be done.

Although this is welcome news, because it means the end of a long legacy of pollution, it is not surprising. Even Brayton Point, New England’s largest power plant is facing desperate financial circumstances. Coal-fired power plants have been faltering across the country over the last two years, and CLF, Coal Free Massachusetts and local allies have been warning that Mt. Tom is not only a polluting, outdated relic but that it is also an unprofitable, unstable source of revenue for the City of Holyoke and that now is the time to plan for a cleaner, brighter future.

A task force created to examine the issue of retiring, demolishing, and eventually redeveloping the sites of aging coal-fired power plants in the Commonwealth will be visiting Holyoke on March 6 for a meeting with ISO-NE and a tour of the Mt. Tom plant.  CLF and its local allies are urging the task force to open this meeting to the public and to solicit more public input on the process.  Thus far, although meetings have been open to the public, there has been little effort to engage local community members.  Engaging the public is critical to an open, fair, transparent process that will create results that the entire community can get behind.



Storm Clouds Gather Over Brayton Point

Dec 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Frank C. Grace,

Frank C. Grace,

Coal-fired power is dying, not only across the nation, but across New England as well.  The region’s coal-fired power plant fleet has started to succumb to the costs of operating a coal-fired dinosaur in the age of energy efficiency, growing renewable electricity generation, and–for now–low natural gas prices.

Predominantly coal-fired Brayton Point Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, is the state’s largest single source of carbon emissions (producing over 6 million tons in 2010). Another harmful pollutant emitted by Brayton Point is particulate matter, which is measured daily by monitors that continuously check the opacity of the soot coming out of the plant’s smokestack. Brayton has been violating their limits for emitting that soot, and failing to monitor their emissions of several other harmful pollutants. Yesterday, CLF filed a notice of intent to sue Brayton’s current owners, Dominion Resources, for those violations. CLF’s upcoming lawsuit is just the latest in a growing list of bad news for Dominion and Brayton Point.

As New England’s other coal plants started to close or teeter on the edge of closure, Brayton Point Station was expected to be the last coal plant standing in the region. It is New England’s largest coal-fired power plant, and in the past decade its current owners, Dominion Resources, sank over $1 billion in pollution control upgrades into the behemoth. While Brayton Point does not have the kind of legal protection from market realities that PSNH exploits to prop up its dirty old coal generation in New Hampshire, many had assumed that Brayton Point was well-positioned to survive in the changing power generation landscape.

source: EPA and ISO-NE data

But the relentless pressure of low natural gas prices and the costs of starting up and operating an enormous coal-fired power plant have begun to affect every corner of the coal generation market in New England, and Brayton Point has not been spared. The plant’s “capacity factor,” which reflects the amount of power the plant generated compared to the amount of power it could have generated if used to its full potential, has taken a nosedive over the past three years. A plummeting capacity factor means that it is a better economic choice for a plant’s owners to keep it idle most of the time than to operate.

Dominion Resources, clearly, has seen the writing on the wall for coal in New England. After signing a binding agreement to cease coal operations at Salem Harbor Station as a result of CLF’s lawsuit against that plant, Dominion sold the Salem plant earlier this year. Following closely on the heels of the Salem sale, the company put Brayton Point on the market in September. While Dominion is marketing Brayton as a modern coal-fired power plant due to its recent billion-dollar pollution control investments, UBS recently assessed [PDF] the value of those investments (and the plant itself) at zero.

Brayton Point’s plummeting capacity factor and bleak sale prospects reflect both the current power of low natural gas prices and the weakness of these old, out-dated coal plants.  That trend will continue as the New England energy market continues to move forward with better integration of efficiency, conservation and renewable generation. Dark clouds are rising over Brayton Point. In the meantime, CLF and our partners will work diligently to hold the Brayton Point power plant accountable for producing its own dark clouds of pollution in violation of the law.

Northern Pass Developers Refuse to Face Facts about Hydropower Emissions

Apr 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The American developers of the Northern Pass project are misleading the public about the project’s most touted environmental benefit (without which they “wouldn’t be doing this”): reducing New England’s greenhouse gas emissions. Presented with clear, unambiguous evidence that the current proposal would not meaningfully reduce emissions and that their public relations campaign is trading in falsehoods, the developers have done nothing to correct the record or provided any substantive response to the evidence.

In mid-February, CLF released a report on the science regarding large-scale hydropower’s emissions of greenhouse gases, the pollutants that are driving climate change. The conclusion: large-scale hydropower projects, especially new facilities, have substantial greenhouse gas emissions that, in their first years of operation, are equivalent to emissions from modern natural gas power plants.

This conclusion means that the proposed Northern Pass project, which would import up to 1,200 megawatts of new Canadian hydropower into New England and displace power from domestic natural gas plants, would not meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as the developers are claiming.  CLF’s report also demonstrated that the assumption at the heart of the developers’ claim that the Northern Pass project would reduce emissions by 5 million tons per year – that Canadian hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions – is unequivocally false.

CLF sent a copy of the hydropower emissions report to Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT). In our transmittal letter, we made clear that the science summarized in the report (some of which was included in NPT’s own regulatory filings) clearly contradicted NPT’s marketing claims and urged NPT to:

  • correct the regulatory and public record by retracting and withdrawing all NPT prior statements that hydropower results in no emissions of greenhouse gases and that the Project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by any specific amount, and
  • refrain from making any claims regarding carbon dioxide emissions reductions associated with the Project unless and until those reductions are substantiated in a new technical analysis subject to public and permitting agency review.

To date, NPT has taken neither step. The false “no emissions” canard and the unsupported claim of 5 million tons of annual emissions reductions from the project are still prominent fixtures at NPT’s

"No greenhouse gases" (source:

NPT spokesman Martin Murray did post a non-responsive comment on CLF’s website, to which I responded in detail here. On its own website, NPT then heralded a Hydro-Québec press release responding to the report, and I explained here why the press release neither reflected a close reading of the report nor challenged the report’s fundamental conclusions but, instead, underscored Hydro-Québec’s position that the major promise of new hydropower imports was as a long-term replacement for dirty, costly coal power plants like New Hampshire’s own Merrimack and Schiller Stations – not natural gas.

Where do NPT’s non-responses leave us? Unfortunately, NPT seems poised to continue on with its false and misleading public relations campaign and has shown no interest in an open, honest debate. CLF will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that the public and decision-makers are fully aware of all the issues associated with the Northern Pass proposal. 

You can support our work by becoming a CLF member and also by telling the permitting agency now reviewing the Northern Pass proposal to consider hydropower’s greenhouse gas emissions – and all the other impacts of Northern Pass power in Canada – as part of the agency’s environmental review – click here to take action.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (, and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

Northern Pass Response to Hydropower Emissions Research Rings Hollow

Feb 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

(photo credit: flickr/massdistraction)

We appreciate Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray’s comment on my prior post regarding recent research on the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower and the implications for the Northern Pass project. We are also grateful for Hydro-Québec environment advisor Dr. Alain Tremblay’s comment, to which I responded here.

Although we welcome the feedback and dialogue, we are discouraged that Mr. Murray’s comment addresses none of the substantive points raised by the Synapse report (PDF) or my post discussing the report. We are disappointed as well that the comment dismisses the fundamental need identified by the Synapse report – an honest and credible accounting for the effect of new imports on overall greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of working on providing such an accounting and engaging in a real dialogue about this issue, Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) has invested heavily in advertising for the Northern Pass project, including the promotion of an emissions reductions figure reliant on new reservoirs that is based on an erroneous zero-emissions assumption. That assumption is contradicted by the Synapse report and Hydro-Québec’s own research, and the marketing claims on this issue (see, for example, here) are thus false and misleading and should be withdrawn immediately, as we have requested in a separate communication to NPT.

The citation to the Climate Action Plan sidesteps the merits of the emissions reduction issue entirely:

  • First, the Task Force did not have the information in the Synapse report at its disposal in making its recommendations.
  • Second, the Climate Action Plan contains important qualifications on its import recommendation that NPT does not acknowledge.  The recommendation itself contains the proviso that new imports should be pursued “with consideration for the broader environmental impacts of the power sources as well as the impacts that this imported power would have on the development of in‐state renewable resources.” That consideration is the work CLF believe needs to happen but has not.  In this regard, NPT’s dismissal of all questions or “challenges” on these issues is flatly inconsistent with the Climate Action Plan’s recommendation.
  • Third, the Climate Action Plan appendix discussing the recommendation (PDF) states that “[t]he benefits to electric customers would be determined by the specific terms of any purchased power agreement and  the reductions to New England fossil fuel generation which would be subject to state regulatory  review and confirmation at the time of any filings for state approval.” (p. 29) In other words, the economic and environmental benefits from imports depend on the details of the proposal, specifically the terms and what generation is displaced. Yet the current proposal includes no Power Purchase Agreement that would benefit PSNH’s own energy consumers, assumes that any future power purchase agreement will be for only a small amount of power, and provides no guarantee or commitment that the imported power will reduce emissions in a meaningful way. The Synapse report directly refutes the only analysis of emissions reductions that NPT has made publicly available. The Climate Action Plan underscores the fundamental need for imports to provide real environmental and economic benefits for New Hampshire, and the current proposal on the table does virtually nothing to meet that need.
  • Fourth, unlike all other recommendations in the Plan, enabling importation of Canadian hydro received a number of “no” votes from the Task Force, “due to concerns over the potential environmental impacts of the imported power and the effect imported power might have on development of in-state renewable resources.” Public comments  from a number of stakeholders, including CLF, questioned the entire recommendation based on these concerns. (Comments are summarized at pp. 246-258 of this PDF.) There was a debate then, and that debate should continue now, based on well-sourced and credible information like the Synapse report.

We agree that there is no one single solution to the climate challenge. But any serious effort to confront climate change in New Hampshire must also confront the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state – PSNH’s aging, inefficient, and uneconomic fossil fuel power plants. As Dr. Tremblay of Hydro-Québec admitted, in comments that NPT is now approvingly citing, “the major environmental challenge facing North America is to replace coal to generate power….” CLF couldn’t agree more.

It seems NPT and its affiliates do not agree with Dr. Tremblay. Importing an additional 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Canada will not help move New England toward a clean energy future if, as the current proposal is structured and as PSNH has repeatedly claimed, imports would only displace relatively clean natural gas generation, and not the power plants that are worst for the climate, like PSNH’s coal-fired units at Merrimack and Schiller Stations.

With Northern Pass proponent PSNH fighting tooth and nail to protect its guaranteed ratepayer subsidy to keep running those units, the supposed commitment of Northern Pass’s developers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions appears to be a textbook example of a greenwash. Given the emissions data presented in the Synapse report, it is clear to CLF that, if Northern Pass proceeds as proposed, our region will forfeit a major opportunity for meaningful action to confront climate change.

Latest Research: Northern Pass Worse for the Climate than Advertised

Feb 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  10 Comment »

Hydro-Québec hydroelectric projects recently commissioned or under construction (Source: Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife)

Reducing the region’s emissions of greenhouse gases is supposedly the Northern Pass project’s marquee public benefit, its raison d’être as they say in Québec. But would the Northern Pass project do the job?

The answer appears to be: probably not any time soon. Today, CLF is releasing a ground-breaking new technical report regarding the greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian hydropower. The conclusions of the report show that large-scale hydropower, especially new reservoirs, is worse for the climate than Northern Pass’s developers are claiming, with substantial greenhouse gas emissions that are comparable to those of modern natural gas-fired power plants. The current Northern Pass proposal substitutes hydropower for natural gas in New England’s energy mix, meaning that the project won’t reduce emissions by much if any, especially in the near term.

Authored by Synapse Energy Economics, the technical report released today, Hydropower Greenhouse Gas Emissions: State of the Research, is an independent survey of the recent science regarding the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower. The science is clear that the reservoirs behind hydropower dams emit greenhouse gases, relative to the forests and wetlands they flood (which often take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere). Overall, reservoirs in Québec emit more greenhouse gases over the course of their lives than renewables like wind, solar, and run of river hydropower.

A crucial finding of the report concerns new reservoirs. In the first several years after a reservoir is dammed, large amounts of newly inundated organic material decompose, emitting carbon dioxide that diffuses through the water into the atmosphere. As a result, a reservoir’s net emissions in its early years are very high – starting out even higher than emissions from a natural gas power plant per unit of power generated. This effect is evident in recent, rigorous analyses by several teams of scientists, based on data collected at Hydro-Québec’s Eastmain 1 reservoir in northern Québec. This reservoir is the very same project that Northeast Utilities’ CFO testified under oath last year would be the primary, if not exclusive, source of Northern Pass’s power. Even when their emissions are projected over their lifetimes, newly flooded Canadian reservoirs may emit nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gases emitted by natural gas power plants. By contrast, reservoirs emit only about 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted by typical coal-fired power plants.

This conclusion is the death knell for Northern Pass Transmission, LLC’s (NPT) claim that the current Northern Pass proposal would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5 million tons. We explained the claim’s key flaw – the report on which it is based erroneously assumes that hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions – back in August. In light of today’s report, CLF is calling on NPT and its partners NU, NSTAR, and PSNH to stop citing that erroneous number and to withdraw all marketing materials for the Northern Pass project that state or imply that Canadian hydropower has no or minimal greenhouse gas emissions. Hydro-Québec is building new hydropower projects that are intended to facilitate new exports to the northeastern United States. To the extent that the prospect of exports is driving the construction of new reservoirs, Northern Pass and projects like it will be responsible for those reservoirs’ emissions and also their other adverse environmental impacts. And if, as the developers’ analysis concluded, the power to be displaced by imports through Northern Pass is overwhelmingly from natural gas plants, the emissions from a succession of new reservoirs in Canada may replace – perhaps completely for a period of time – the emissions of displaced natural gas power. In that scenario, the Northern Pass project would do little – or even nothing – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the near-term.

The report makes another critical point about a different kind of displacement that could occur with Northern Pass. According to a recent study, stepping up Hydro-Québec’s exports to the United States may actually decrease its exports to other provinces in Canada, where the need for fossil fuel-fired power then increases, resulting in additional emissions. Those emissions may cancel out any reductions from displaced power in the United States. This effect is a potential blind spot that needs to be considered and analyzed as part of the public review of any new imports.

The report’s findings are important information regarding the environmental impacts of the project that the U.S. Department of Energy must consider as part of its review of Northern Pass’s application for a Presidential Permit. For that reason, earlier today, CLF submitted the report to DOE along with Synapse’s analysis of the potential effect of Northern Pass on the regional market for renewable energy.

To CLF, the report suggests that new imports could be part of the region’s climate strategy if imports:

  • displace dirty power, like project sponsor PSNH’s uneconomic, subsidized power plants, to achieve a meaningful net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without increasing the use of fossil fuel-fired power plants in Canada;
  • support – rather than undermine – local renewable projects and energy efficiency efforts in New England; and
  • have minimal impacts on the environment and communities on both sides of the border.

PSNH is in a unique position to take its coal units offline, in conjunction with its potential power purchase agreement with Hydro-Québec that is supposedly in the works. Instead, PSNH is marching on with its broken coal-based business model at great cost to New Hampshire consumers and the environment. Unless the proposal changes, the Northern Pass project does not deliver on the developers’ claims and will not advance a cleaner energy future for New England.

When a Fact Check Goes Wrong and Misses the (Clean Energy) Point

Jan 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

The rise of dedicated public fact checking services like PolitiFact, and the Washington Post Fact Checker has been a generally good thing. However, these services can go astray when they decide that a statement which would be improved with clarification is “false” – a practice that weakens the “false” label when it is applied to an outright falsehood.

This unfortunate phenomena was on display when the Rhode Island edition of PolitiFact critiqued a comment by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about the interplay between the deployment of renewable energy resources like solar panels and ending U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels, like the oil that is refined into gasoline.

In their critique, the Providence Journal staff writing and editing the item examine comments that Senator Whitehouse made in support of federal tax incentives for renewable energy:

“Let me just bring it home,” Whitehouse said, as he referred to his notes. “In Rhode Island, this [grant program] has facilitated solar panel installations on three new bank branches. The TD Bank has opened up in Barrington, in East Providence and in Johnston, Rhode Island. Those projects created jobs, they put people to work, they lowered the cost for these banks of their electrical energy, and they get us off foreign oil and away, step by step, from these foreign entanglements that we have to get into to defend our oil supply.”

The Politi-Fact RI folks decide to look narrowly at the question of whether electricity production from solar panels always and consistently directly reduces use of oil.  This is definitely part of the story and, as I emphasized when I spoke to their reporter when he was working on the “piece, it is a direct relationship that used to be more present back in the days (not too many years ago) when more of our electricity came from oil. But is still a real relationship, especially during the days in the summer when air conditioning drives up electric demand to its highest levels of the year.  As ISO New England (the operator of the regional electric grid) told Politi-Fact RI “oil is used more on days when demand for power is high” although the reporters dismiss this reality (despite the fact that these peak hours are when air pollution is at its worst and the fact that the entire system is designed to meet that moment of peak demand) as “isolated.”

Senator Whitehouse was making three points, only one of which is addressed by the simple “displacement” analysis of what generation is pushed out by deployment of new renewable sources:

  • Moving to cleaner electricity generation from renewable sources like wind and solar is an essential piece in an overall conversion of our economy and energy system (including energy used to move the wheels on our cars, trucks and buses round and round) away from dirty and imported fossil fuels. In places like East Providence RI where TD Bank (as highlighted by Senator Whitehouse) is installing solar panels on the roof of their branches in close proximity to a Chevrolet dealer selling the Chevy Volt you can seeing that future taking shape.
  • Senator Whitehouse’s larger point about ending “foreign entanglements” is of particular significance, moving beyond the question of oil, to people in and around Rhode Island because the largest power plant in what is known in the wholesale electricity world as “Greater Rhode Island” (a geographical label of particular pride and amusement to native Rhode Islanders) is the Brayton Point Power Plant. That facility, just over the border in Somerset Massachusetts, has burnt coal imported from Indonesia and Colombia in recent years.
  • And the direct displacement issue is real: while there is less oil used to generate electricity these days it is worth pondering the overlap between peak solar energy generation (do we really need a link to show that it makes more electricity when it is sunny?) and those peak hours of electricity demand during the summer when it is hottest and air conditioners across the region are roaring away.

All of this suggests that the specific comment by Senator Whitehouse that Politi-Fact Rhode Island evaluated are solidly grounded in facts and accurate observations.