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Peter Lord
By Peter Lord March 27, 2011

Rep. Brien says Woonsocket needs garbage-burning power plant because of the high price of electricity generated by foreign oil

State Rep. Jon D. Brien, D-Woonsocket, has proposed legislation that would override Rhode Island’s 20-year ban on trash incinerators and permit Woonsocket to host a waste-to-energy plant.

In a news release from the State House, and later at a hearing on Thursday before his House Committee on Municipal Government, Brien made two arguments.

First, he said it makes no sense to continue dumping garbage at the Rhode Island Central Landfill, which the state has to continually expand, especially because the garbage could be transformed into a viable alternative energy resource.

"Rather than burying trash in the ground and that being the end of it, why not use it to create electricity?" Brien said in an interview.

That puzzled us, because the state’s Resource Recovery Corporation already generates electricity from garbage, collecting methane gas produced by the decomposing trash deep in the landfill and piping it to a commercial plant that burns the gas to produce power.

But it was his second point -- that the waste-to-energy plant is needed because  "residents are paying through the nose for electricity that’s fueled by foreign oil, at prices that are skyrocketing" -- that really jumped out at us.

Power plants in Rhode Island converted long ago from burning oil to burning natural gas. Most new plants burn natural gas. The one big exception remains the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset that burns coal, and a little natural gas.

So we wondered how the Woonsocket waste-to-energy plant that Brien supports would have any effect on our dependence on foreign oil.

We contacted ISO New England, the independent, not-for-profit corporation that oversees the distribution of electricity throughout New England. Spokeswoman Ellen Foley directed us to a chart showing electric power energy sources in New England.

The chart shows that natural gas accounted for 32 percent of  the power generation in New England in 2010. Nuclear was the next biggest source, at 29 percent. Coal generated 11 percent of New England’s power. Hydropower generated another 5.5 percent. Renewable sources such as wind, solar, and landfill gases provide 6 percent.

The power plants that can run on either oil or natural gas produced 12 percent of the region’s power. But ISO officials say they burn mostly gas, because oil is so expensive.

In fact, it’s so expensive that the amount of power generated by oil, according to ISO, was only 0.4 percent. In other words, nearly zero.

When we asked Brien about this discrepancy, he insisted that oil is used to generate electricity used locally.  And with oil trading at a two-year high, he said it is possible that oil is affecting electricity prices. That is certainly true nationally, he said.

No, it’s not. Nationally, oil produces less than one percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Bottom line: an extremely small percentage of Rhode Island’s and New England’s electricity comes from high-priced foreign oil.

One would expect a state representative who is pushing a power plant in his district to know that.

We rule his statement Pants on Fire.

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Rep. Brien says Woonsocket needs garbage-burning power plant because of the high price of electricity generated by foreign oil

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