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As Finger-Pointing Over Unloved Gas Plant Continues, Who Really Gets To Call The Shots?

Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont

Gov. Ned Lamont said last week that he doesn’t want to build a proposed natural gas power plant in Killingly and that he is hamstrung by regional market obligations. But the head of a trade group representing virtually all of the power plants in New England said the state does have some control over whether to approve the project. 

Speaking on Wednesday, Feb. 3, on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live, Lamont said that at this point there might not be a lot he can do to stop the natural gas plant in Killingly. 

“Do I want to build one of the last natural gas power plants in the state of Connecticut? No. Are there a lot of games you can play that could, potentially, slow it down? No,” Lamont said. “We’re going to regulate the heck out of it. Keep a close eye on it. I don’t necessarily want to see it built. I’m not quite sure how many legal roadblocks you can put in the way.”

The proposed 650-megawatt plant would provide enough power for about 500,000 homes annually. But the proposal has drawn the ire of environmental groups who say building a natural gas plant conflicts with Lamont’s stated commitment to clean up Connecticut’s energy portfolio.

Lamont has repeatedly blamed ISO New England, the regional grid operator, for hosting a marketplace he said prioritizes reliability and price at the expense of carbon emissions.

ISO has maintained for months that states control what gets built within their borders.

The finger-pointing began in earnest in January 2020 when Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, declared natural gas would no longer be a “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future and said the state would take “a serious look at the cost and benefits of participating in the ISO New England markets.”

Dykes’ public remarks came nearly one year after the Killingly plant scored its first big developmental go-ahead in 2019. That’s when it won a spot in a power auction hosted by ISO New England called the “forward capacity auction.” 

That annual event locks in plants slated to retire and gives the energy market its first indication about new plants like Killingly, which are looking to come online at a future date.

But securing a supply obligation doesn’t guarantee a project gets built.

“The second aspect, or pathway for development in the region is at the state and the local level,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, a trade group that represents most of the power generators in the region. 

“There’s a fair amount of control at the state level over granting those permits or not,” Dolan said. “Certainly, the policies of a given state -- whether it’s on de-carbonization, or local economic development, or jobs, or anything else -- have a major impact on that. And could, conceivably, create a basis for a permit approval or a permit denial.”

A spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said last week the permitting process at Killingly continues and that the DEEP is still reviewing the project.

“A final decision was issued on January 20, 2021 for the permit to discharge to the sewer which authorized NTE [the developer] to submit for approval final construction plans and specifications of the wastewater facility,” wrote DEEP spokesperson Will Healey in an email. “The permit will be issued after approval of those plans.”

Healey said another pipeline permit remains under review by the agency.

A spokesperson for the developer, Florida-based NTE Energy, said construction on the plant is expected to begin in the first half of this year. 

Meanwhile, the Lamont administration continues to cast the lion’s share of the responsibility for the plant on ISO New England and is calling for reforms to ISO’s energy-selection markets that look beyond system reliability and price. 

Dolan said that argument has merit. 

He said his organization supports putting “a meaningful price on carbon emissions” to create constraints in ISO markets, which better balance reliability standards and state-level de-carbonization goals.

“That’s a hole in the market,” Dolan said. “That’s a hole that needs to be filled.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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