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Amid closures, CT sees a wave of new power plants

BY Matt Pilon

9/10/2018
Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
A view of the recently completed CPV Towantic plant in Oxford, which adds about 800 megawatts of natural-gas-fired generation to New England's power grid.
Connecticut is experiencing a boom in new power plants.

Despite the recent closure of power plants that provide electricity to New England's shared power grid, several new generation facilities have opened that not only replaced lost output but increased Connecticut's electricity contributions to the region.

The largest new Connecticut power plant is in Oxford, where the 805-megawatt CPV Towantic natural gas plant, which can also run on oil if needed, entered service in June. Combined with two new gas-fired turbines in Wallingford and a 20-megawatt solar farm in New London County that also went live this year, 2018 is already Connecticut's biggest year in more than a decade for new generation coming online, according to data from grid operator ISO-New England.

Next year, the 484-megawatt Bridgeport Harbor natural gas plant is slated to open, replacing the state's last remaining coal-fired facility. Meanwhile, NTE Energy has been trying to win approvals to build a 650-megawatt natural gas plant in Killingly, which could open by 2022.

"This is the first major building boom for power plants we're seeing in about 10 to 15 years," said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association (NEPGA), which represents power plants across the six states, totaling around 25,000 megawatts of capacity.

The trend is also reflected in the rising amount of electricity that generators here pledge to make available in the future, including from plants not yet in service, in exchange for up-front "capacity" payments.

In each of the past four years, Connecticut generators have pledged more output than in any other year since ISO-NE started running capacity auctions in 2007, ISO-NE data show.

The growth has been fueled in part by new plants like Towantic and Bridgeport Harbor, in addition to higher output from existing generators.

Dolan says Connecticut's development activity is not entirely unique.

"We're seeing this across the New England electricity market," he said. "Broadly speaking, we are looking at 4,200 megawatts that are going away and being replaced by a comparable number coming into the system."

Large, new power plants are significant because they bring tax dollars and jobs. They also replace older, often dirtier generation with more efficient technology, though they still emit carbon dioxide and pollutants.

Of course, shepherding new generators through the planning and approval process takes years and is never guaranteed. Power plants often face fierce opposition from residents concerned about air pollution and property values. Developers also face competition from an increasing amount of renewable energy in the region.

Planning for retirement

Besides wear and tear from age, many of the power plants that are being shuttered can no longer compete with cheap natural gas that has become abundantly available as a result of the shale boom in several U.S. regions outside of New England, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In recent years, New England has seen the retirement of the massive 1,535-megawatt Brayton Point and 749-megawatt Salem Harbor coal and oil plants in eastern Massachusetts, as well as the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

In Connecticut, NRG announced in 2013 that it would shutter its oil-fired, 342-megawatt Norwalk Harbor Station plant, and ISO-NE currently deems another 1,658 megawatts worth of fossil fuel generation in Connecticut to be "at risk" for retirement in the coming years — plants that were built between the 1950s and 1970s.

Other major retirements in the region include the 680-megawatt Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in 2019 and the 2,000-megawatt Mystic Generating Station in 2022, both in Massachusetts.

A developer's outlook

Competitive Power Ventures, which managed the Towantic project, hasn't announced any more New England power plants, but President Sherman Knight said the market is strong.

"We're always looking at New England," said Knight, whose company has five other natural gas plants in operation or under development, plus a wind farm in Oklahoma. "I think there's probably additional generation that needs to be built within New England."

Exactly who does it and where remains to be seen.

Knight said some things give him pause, including efforts in some states, including Connecticut, to provide more financial support to nuclear plants through the use of out-of-market, long-term contracts or other structures.

Meanwhile, growth in renewable and clean power is blunting, at least to some extent, the need for new power plants, and there are concerns about New England relying too heavily on natural gas, which currently generates about half of the region's power. That's a potential problem because if there was a major service interruption or swing in prices, ISO-NE would have limited resources or options to respond.

Dolan says it remains an open question how big a role renewables will play in replacing power plants that retire into the next decade.

"We're starting to see a big wave of these resources being contracted for, that will start to enter the market over the next several years," Dolan said. "I think that is going to certainly dampen the amount of new investment [from power plant developers]."