National Grid Pressed About Portsmouth LNG Facility
December 15, 2020
The fate of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) operation on Old Mill Lane in Portsmouth remains in limbo after a meeting before the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB). But it’s likely that the facility, which is considered temporary, will be in operation for several more years.
Neighbors of the 5-acre site say the operation that stores and converts LNG to natural gas to meet spikes in demand on Aquidneck Island is loud and an eyesore.
“For those of us who live in the neighborhood this is unacceptable,” Old Mill Lane residents Lori and Stephen MacDonald wrote in a letter to the EFSB.
The couple bought the home across the street from the seasonal gas facility in 1992, after assurances from then-owner the Providence Gas Co. that new pipes would be installed to reduce noise and that vegetation would be landscaped to blend in with the residential neighborhood.
Providence Gas kept its promises, but after National Grid bought the company in 2006, the landscaping worsened and the noise was louder and more frequent, according to the MacDonalds.
“Lighting at the site overwhelms the neighborhood,” the MacDonalds wrote. They also noted that traffic has increased, as LNG tanker trucks travel through narrow streets with no sidewalks and drive on properties to turn.
After the hearing, National Grid said that in response to the comments from abutters, sound has been reduced by replacing noisy generators with electrical equipment and modifications have been made to the vaporizers. Screening was added to lights and landscaping was enhanced during the warmer months to improve aesthetics.
Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport have reservations about the facility. While National Grid doesn’t want to use the site long term, the problem for the state’s primary gas and electric utility is that the facility is located where a regional natural-gas pipeline reaches Aquidneck Island from Little Compton, via an underwater gas main. The Old Mill Lane site is therefore ideal for injecting national gas to meet spikes in demand, especially during the winter.
National Grid repurposed the site as a temporary LNG vaporization facility in January 2019, to alleviate an outage that left 7,455 Aquidneck Island customers without gas for a week. An emergency waiver was granted by the EFSB to operate the facility for two years. The temporary waiver ends after this winter. In the meantime, National Grid is exploring alternatives, but none of them will be in operation until at least 2024.
At the Dec. 10 EFSB hearing, National Grid was scolded for not acting sooner to ask for clarification as to whether the vaporization equipment should fall under the purview of the EFSB and possibly need to receive a license to operate as a major energy facility.
“I have no idea what on earth National Grid was thinking by waiting this long given the fact that its filings suggest an extreme urgency to have that equipment out there,” EFSB chair Ronald Gerwatowski said.
Gerwatowski said he expected a request for clarification from National Grid on the vaporization equipment much earlier in the year, not in September.
“This was needless,” Gerwatowski said later in the hearing. “I’m still frustrated with National Grid having delayed with the filing.”
National Grid’s attorney, George Watson, said time was needed to explore alternatives to Old Mill Lane as part of a regional energy plan for Aquidneck Island. But Gerwatowski, who read the letter aloud from the MacDonalds, noted that finding alternatives could have occurred at the same times as asking the EFSB to determine if the vaporization equipment is considered a power plant.
EFSB member Janet Coit noted that the facility on Old Mill Land shouldn’t be considered temporary because it will be in place until at least 2024, and requires waivers from the EFSB to do so.
“Your plan is to use it year after year until a long-term plan, correct?” Coit asked Watson.
“Yes, because it’s the only place we can do peak shaving on the island right now,” said Watson, noting that the site isn’t being looked at as the permanent solution to the peak-shaving question. “That’s what makes it temporary.”
Those options, at least for the near term, include moving operations to a site owned by the Navy or using a barge to store and vaporize LNG. Any alternative requires acquiring property, obtaining local permits, and conducting system and infrastructure upgrades.
“So there’s not a quick turnaround to it,” Watson said. “And until those facilities are in place, we are left with Old Mill Lane to be the only available option to the company at this time.”
Kevin Gavin, town solicitor for Portsmouth, said the facility appears to qualify as a major energy facility and that the issue should have been addressed sooner. If the EFSB doesn’t offer a license, then National Grid will have to endure a review by the town’s Zoning Board of Review for a special-use permit and public hearings will need to be held.
“National Grid just seems to just kick this can down the road and says we have an emergency and we need to proceed,” Gavin said.
Old Mill Lane is a stone’s throw away from Middletown, prompting the town to raise questions about security, safety, and environmental impacts. Town solicitor Marisa Desautel said if the facility is permanent then emergency plans and training will be needed for first responders. She said National Grid can’t be seeking perpetual waivers from the EFSB.
“The town is very concerned with what appears to be a fast and loose approach to dealing with the Energy Facility Siting Act,” Desautel said.
The Newport City Council passed a resolution Dec. 9 stating support for a non-infrastructure option in place of a permanent new natural gas facility on Aquidneck Island. The concept involves electrify the heating sector through energy efficiency and the use of equipment such as heat pumps.
The EFBS pressed National Grid to delve deeper into this option if it intends to have the LNG equipment at Old Mill Lane approved as a major source energy facility.
There was no public comment at the hearing, but the public will be allowed to speak at another hearing on a date to be determined.