When the plan to build a natural gas power plant in Killingly first came up in 2016, the objections from folks in this northeast corner town of about 17,000 were pretty basic – they already had one, didn’t want another about a mile away, and didn’t want its emissions.
“Not another power plant,” was the rallying cry. Three years later, this remains the name of the local opposition group — or NAPP for short.
But since then, the furor over the proposed Killingly Energy Center (KEC) has expanded into a statewide environmental cause célèbre and is now something of a poster child for how not to tackle climate change. Those critical of the plan point out that a fossil fuel-run power plant that still emits greenhouse gases, even if it produces fewer of them than oil or coal plants, will not allow the state to meet a 2040 target of 100% zero carbon for the elector sector suggested by Gov. Ned Lamont last month.
“This one plant is shining a light on a bigger problem we have in Connecticut. We have clean energy goals and greenhouse gas reduction goals, but they’re only good if we use them for decision-making.”
State Director, Sierra Club
With this as their argument, environmental advocates have ramped up their opposition to KEC. For the last several months, members of the Sierra Club and other groups have protested every Friday outside the governor’s residence, while NAPP has held protests on Saturdays in Killingly. Advocates have also blasted the governor’s office and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes with emails and calls opposing the plant.
“This one plant is shining a light on a bigger problem we have in Connecticut,” said Samantha Dynowski, state director of the Sierra Club. “We have clean energy goals and greenhouse gas reduction goals, but they’re only good if we use them for decision-making.”
Lately the governor is saying what they’re saying.
“I can say Connecticut has a zero-carbon electric grid by 2040. I’d like to see Rhode Island and Massachusetts follow our lead there. And if we’re all on that same page, we don’t need a Killingly plant. We’ll see how that sorts out,” Lamont said after a meeting with governors of those two states Thursday. “I’ve got to think about: Is this important for Connecticut’s energy future? Right now, I’m sort of doubtful.”
His comments echoed a widely-circulated video from a few days prior in which Lamont said he was going to take “a good hard look at it.”
“I’ve got to think about: Is this important for Connecticut’s energy future? Right now, I’m sort of doubtful.”
Gov. Ned Lamont
On Friday there was a meeting that included representatives of the governor’s office, Dykes and the plant’s developers – NTE Energy, based in Florida. Sources say state officials are taking a hard look at the project and discussing what the options are.
Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, D-Bethel, co-vice chair of the Energy and Technology Committee and leader of the legislative Clean Energy Caucus, said he’s spoken with the governor’s office about next steps. He also signed a letter from more than two-dozen legislators urging Lamont to oppose the Killingly plant.
“We don’t want a fossil fuel future for Connecticut,” he said. “The governor is committed to clean energy. We want to make sure we stay on that path. We don’t need the power and even if we did, we wouldn’t do this.”
While the recent activity indicates KEC opponents may be closer to convincing state officials than they realize, actually stopping the plant is not so easy. The governor can’t just say, “I don’t want it.” The regulatory approval process is underway. And the grid operator, ISO-New England, has already obligated itself to use the power.
A little history will help explain the difficulties.
What happened and when
The plant was first proposed in 2016 for 550 megawatts. By comparison, both Millstone units together are about 2100 megawatts. The state’s siting council rejected the proposal twice. It was resubmitted early this year for 650 megawatts.
The siting council approved the new submission in early June, despite arguments that the power was not needed for grid reliability, and DEEP filed a letter of support, which opponents criticized for not addressing climate change.
Dykes, however, has repeatedly acknowledged to the CT Mirror that climate change pressures have increased rapidly since she served as energy chief in 2011, when the state began a push for greater use of natural gas toward the beginning of the Malloy administration.
“We need to be transitioning away from more fossil fuel to zero carbon,” she reiterated after last Friday’s meeting. But she laid a lot of the problem at ISO’s doorstep.
Dykes pointed out that at the last annual future power auction in February – known as the forward capacity auction – to choose power generators beginning in 2022, the Killingly plant was among the generators it chose, which means the whole region is stuck with it.
“We need to be transitioning away from more fossil fuel to zero carbon.”
DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes
She argued the region needs a better model so ISO can include carbon emission considerations and not just price.
“I’ve been urging for some time the need for policies and market design that cannot only accommodate price but also help to achieve these public policy goals,” she said, adding that the Killingly situation “underscores how important it is now.”
“The fact that they won the forward capacity auction has been used by DEEP and others as a reason to justify need for the plant,” said Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel for Connecticut Fund for the Environment, an organization that has actively fought the plant. “That’s a false argument. Forward capacity doesn’t indicate need – it just means who they’ve chosen.”
The siting council rejected in July a request for reconsideration of its approval for Killingly. Just days before the governor’s executive order paving the way to 100% carbon-free power, NAPP filed suit over the siting council decision.
That case, which has not yet been heard, focuses narrowly on one issue. When the siting council approved the plant, the pipeline needed to connect it to a natural gas supply was not included. The lawyer for NAPP said, based on previous federal rulings, it should have been.
The matter of the pipeline, which would go through areas of protected land and under the Quinebaug River, along with a number of permits that still require approval, could turn out to be good news for plant opponents since any one of the needed approvals, theoretically, has the potential to derail the project.
Lois Latraverse, a member of NAPP, still worries. “Our feeling is if you start that construction and the pipeline is not approved, you could still destroy acres and acres of carbon-eating forestland,” she said.
Adding to the frustration of plant opponents was a timing problem that emanated from confusion over rules that made it difficult for the many planned offshore wind resources, which are zero carbon, to compete in last February’s auction.
The state of natural gas in New England
All of this begs the question of whether, in the face of climate change, new natural gas plants should be built, period.
“Unequivocally no,” said Martha Klein of Sierra Club, who organized much of the Killingly protests and cites economic reasons, such as the declining costs of solar and offshore wind and the potential for battery storage. “All of these other states are doing renewable energy projects. Who says we need another fossil fuel power plant? We don’t need it.”
But Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, said natural gas is still needed even with the dramatic increases in renewable deployment.
“It becomes a funny situation,” he said. “There is going to be a need from a reliability basis for things like natural gas.”
Such plants can be powered up as needed at times, he said, such as when the wind isn’t blowing, the sun isn’t shining, or a key generator goes offline.
“We expect natural gas plants to operate less, but be more valuable,” Dolan said. “I don’t think they’re incompatible in the transition and march towards decarbonization.”
Gas still accounts for about half of New England’s available power generation and nuclear accounts for just under one-third. Renewables – not including hydro – while only about one-tenth currently account for almost all of the proposed new generation: 61% is wind, 15% is solar and 12% is battery storage, according to ISO-NE.
Natural gas accounts for 12%. According to ISO-NE, since the start of the state’s push for more natural gas in 2011, eight natural gas units larger than 100 megawatts have come online in New England. Five are in Connecticut, including the Bridgeport Harbor expansion, the Kleen Energy project in Middletown and the Towantic Energy Center in Oxford, along with a number of smaller plants – totaling more than 2,500 megawatts.
ISO reports that there are two natural gas projects greater than 100 MW under development in New England — one in Rhode Island, and Killingly.
Killingly’s developer, NTE, is a fairly new company with two operating plants, one under construction and four projects (including Killingly) in development.
Email comments from Tim Eves, NTE’s president, did not respond to the question of what the company would do in the face of an attempt by Connecticut to scuttle the plant. Eves’ statement reiterated the plant’s ability “to support the variability of renewable energy sources: KEC will run when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing and will not run when they are.”
Killingly Town Manager Mary Calorio, said “the town has no comment,” when asked what it would do if the plant is not built.
The town stands to make a large amount of money from the plant. In addition to hundreds of temporary jobs, it would reap more than $120 million over 20 years in tax stabilization and Community Environmental Benefit Agreement payments.
Even so, Rep. Pat Boyd, D-Pomfret, who does not represent Killingly but can see the plant site from his home, said not one of the many constituents that has contacted him is in favor of the plant.
“It is a step in the wrong direction,” he said, noting nearby solar developments. “We’ve set a policy for the state. Putting in a plant like this is completely opposite to that vision.”
Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.