BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The North Shore could face “controlled blackouts” if the natural-gas power plant that Footprint Power plans to open in 2016 on the Salem waterfront is not ready on time, the operator of the New England power grid warned this week.
A legal filing Wednesday by ISO New England, the independent organization that manages the regional power supply, is the strongest statement yet of the need for electricity from the proposed Salem plant, now facing legal challenges.
“The outcome of this appeal,” wrote ISO General Counsel Ray Hepper, “may significantly affect the reliability of the electric system in New England.”
ISO’s 10-page motion also appears to be a strong repudiation of the position taken by the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group that has appealed approvals won by the plant’s developer, Footprint Power of New Jersey, and has questioned the need for the plant.
Footprint and others have warned that if the appeals drag on for months before the state Supreme Judicial Court, it could impact pending financing and threaten the $800 million project.
Technically, ISO filed a “motion to intervene” in the case, took no position on CLF’s appeal, and requested only that the appeals be resolved soon, within a month or so, to allow it to plan for the region’s future energy needs.
But in doing so, ISO made a strong case for the need for the 692-megawatt Salem plant, a project it endorsed earlier this year.
“Among other things,” Hepper wrote, “CLF incorrectly claims that no electrical shortage is likely to occur if the Footprint facility is not available by June 1, 2016.”
To the contrary, he said, if the Salem plant is not ready on time, “the (Northeast/Boston) area is expected to face an electric capacity shortage, will not meet federal reliability criteria and could face controlled blackouts.”
In response, CLF said ISO has been wrong before and is wrong this time.
“ISO previously found that the obsolete Salem Harbor Station coal station was needed for reliability before being vetoed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission” in 2010, CLF Vice President N. Jonathan Peress wrote in an email.
The federal agency overruled ISO three years ago, he said, in response to a CLF challenge.
The regional grid operator appeared to answer that argument in its filing. The decision ISO made last January, when it accepted a proposal by Footprint Power to build a new plant, was, Hepper stated, “supported by a final order” by the federal agency.
“Therefore, the court should disregard CLF’s claim that the ISO has not ‘concluded that an electrical capacity shortage is likely to occur’ without Footprint,” Hepper stated. Footprint, he said, “is needed.”
CLF said it has taken on this fight because the state has a legal obligation to comply with the 2008 Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act, which calls for steep reductions in carbon emissions through 2050. The organization argues that Footprint has not proved that it can meet those tough new standards.
“CLF is focused on ensuring that the decision to build this, or any new power plant, is made in compliance with the law and as the Global Warming Solutions Act requires, with full consideration of the climate and other environmental impacts it will have over its lifespan,” said Peress.
“Shortcutting that process is not only against the law, but it sets a terrible precedent for a state that proposes to lead the nation on climate. We will not let fear-mongering about brownouts, nor Footprint’s self-interest in fast-tracking the project, deter us from getting due process.”
While the environmental group and others have said that ISO has many options available to ensure the lights stay on, ISO said its options are limited.
Without a new power plant, ISO said it could even have to resort to measures like “trailer-mounted diesel generators” to provide the extra power needed in the region.
Opponents of the plant have argued that future energy needs in this region can be met by a number of steps, including upgrades to electric transmission lines and energy conservation.
“There are no transmission projects that have even begun the siting process and, as a result, transmission is also not a viable option to meet the need,” the ISO attorney wrote.
If anything, ISO said the need for electricity in future years has only increased this year due to the potential closings of several power plants.
In response, the CLF stressed that the regional grid operator, while playing an important role, has a limited perspective on the global energy issue.
“ISO-NE’s legally-mandated responsibility is to keep the lights on,” Peress stated. “It doesn’t have the means, nor is it allowed by law to determine whether Footprint or any other power plant is environmentally suitable. That is the state’s job, and decisions must be made consistent with state law.”
ISO told the court that it is “counting on” Footprint’s (power generation) capacity to be available no later than June 1, 2016.
It also reminded the court that Footprint, in its own legal filing, said it must begin pre-construction by the end of January to open the plant by June 2016, and that it cannot obtain financing while the appeals are pending.
ISO asked the court to rule on the appeals “as soon as practicable.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.