Guest Blog: A New Fossil-Fuel Power Plant in Rhode Island is the Wrong Move

Jerry Elmer

The following blog is by Dr. J. Timmons Roberts, an expert witness that CLF is presenting on the issues of carbon emissions and climate impacts in the ongoing litigation at the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board in which CLF is asking the EFSB to deny a permit to Invenergy to build a new 900-megawatt fossil fuel power plant in Burrillville, Rhode Island.

Dr. Roberts is an internationally renowned climate expert, who holds an endowed chair at Brown University, the Ittleson Professorship of Environmental Studies and Sociology.  Dr. Roberts is the co-author of multiple books on climate change, including Power in a Warming World: The New Politics of Climate Change (MIT Press, 2015); and scores of articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals such as Science; Nature: Climate Change; and others.

This blog is excerpted from Dr. Roberts’s full testimony, which you can see here. CLF is filing Dr. Roberts’s testimony with the EFSB today.


Building a new 900-megawatt gas- and oil-fired power plant in Rhode Island will make it impossible for the state to achieve the carbon-emission-reduction goals set forth in the Resilient Rhode Island Act.

That landmark statute was signed into law on August 1, 2014, after being passed unanimously in the state Senate, and nearly unanimously in the state House. In response to the devastating risks Rhode Island faces from rising global temperatures caused by fossil fuel combustion, the Act lays out ambitious goals for Rhode Island to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. This is the level of reductions widely believed by scientists as being necessary worldwide in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. In fact, recent science is suggesting deeper cuts are probably needed.

To reach such deep emissions reductions, profound societal and systemic economic changes will be necessary, and they will not happen overnight – around the globe or here in Rhode Island. In order to reach our state’s 2050 goal without terrible disruption later, it is essential to start making significant reductions now. That is why the Resilient Rhode Island Act calls for a 10% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020, and a 45% reduction below 1990 levels by 2035.

These interim goals are a crucially important part of the statute. This approach – of setting short-, medium-, and long-term goals – is one that is widely used by climate scientists, political leaders, and others who are addressing the problem of climate change.

I helped to shape the final version of the Resilient Rhode Island Act, but the goals came from the state Office of Energy Resources. After it was signed by the Governor, I have continued to work with groups of students and community members who have sought to facilitate the new statute being put into operation. For this reason, I recognize that these goals are ambitious. Even if we start immediately, meeting the goals in the law will be very challenging. But the goals are also very achievable.

The longer we wait, the harder it will be. The sooner we act, the more we can improve our economic efficiency, reduce the risk of volatile fossil fuel prices, and decrease the burden of outdated fossil fuel infrastructure. Acting sooner also creates many more jobs in Rhode Island, since fossil fuels are all imported to the state, while installing renewable energy infrastructure and doing the important work of reducing energy waste in the state will create thousands of jobs. In fact, they are already.

If the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board grants the requested permit for the proposed new natural gas plant proposed by Invenergy, the challenge of meeting the state goals on emissions reductions will go from difficult to impossible.

There is no doubt that the rate of emissions from burned natural gas is lower than from coal or fuel oil combustion. Nor is there doubt that the wholesale shift of New England away from coal- and oil-fired power plants has improved our CO2 emissions levels substantially. Natural gas has been an important bridge fuel in this regard. But we have now crossed that bridge (away from coal- and oil-fired electricity generation).

We are now building a second bridge that includes renewable energy for an increasing proportion of New England’s electricity. Thus, building a new, long-lived, fossil-fuel-fired power plant like Invernergy’s – which would emit dangerous carbon pollution into the atmosphere for decades – would be going the wrong way back across that bridge, a U-turn that would lead toward higher emissions. That this is the case is clear from the fact that the proposed Burrillville plant would be more polluting per kilowatt hour generated than the average energy now on the New England power grid.

The Resilient Rhode Island Act is a clear mandate for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board to act to meet the emissions-reduction goals. The Act is sound public policy, representing a managed glide path to a transition in our energy systems away from fossil fuels. Given the mandate laid out in the Act, the Siting Board should play its role as a key agent in the state’s public policy system.

The Resilient Rhode Island Act is new, and to date, no permit or license has ever been denied because the application was inconsistent with it. However just because it has not yet been done does not at all mean it should not. The Siting Board would have just cause to deny this permit to Invenergy under the Resilient Rhode Island Act.

It would be appropriate that most climate change policy be developed at the federal level. However that simply is not happening anytime soon. The United States Congress has failed completely to enact comprehensive, effective, mandatory legislation addressing climate change. Similarly, Congress has not passed any major legislation aimed at curbing carbon emissions. In this context of a lack of meaningful action from the federal legislature, actions taken by state legislatures become fundamental to securing a safe future.

Rhode Island’s Resilient Rhode Island Act is an important step in the right direction, but only if it is enforced by Rhode Island agencies and commissions.

Taking a first step is extremely important: the world simply won’t be changed without examples of what we must do to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Individuals and communities need to show that another way forward is possible, that rejecting a fossil fuel power plant and boldly stepping to efficiency and renewable energy is possible and beneficial, economically and socially. Rhode Island will be far better without this “stranded asset” and with robust investment in a just transition off of fossil fuels to new renewables like wind, solar, wave, tidal, and hydroelectricity.

I urge the Energy Facility Siting Board to take action by following through on the mandate laid out in the Resilient Rhode Island Act and rejecting Invenergy’s polluting fossil fuel plant application.

You can read more about Dr. Roberts’ opposition to the plant in today’s Providence Journal.

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