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Following energy issues in the state of Connecticut and beyond.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday's Tragedy and Its Aftermath

Building new power plants in Connecticut has never been any easy thing.

It's part of the reason that back in the 1970s, the Legislature created the forerunner of what is now know as the Connecticut Siting Council in an effort to "balance the need for adequate and reliable public utility services ..... with the need to protect the environment and ecology of the state." The idea, to some extent, was that the Siting Council would take some of the politics out of the process.

But the horrific explosion at the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown (shown in an artist's rendering at left) is about to make siting power plants a whole lot more contentious. And those power plants that are already under construction or near completion,are probably going to be facing increased scrutiny.

NRG Energy - or more accurately GenConn Energy, the New Jersey-based company's joint venture with the United Illuminating Co. - is in the midst of building a pair of 200 megawatt power plants. One of these plants is adjacent to the old Devon Station power plant in Milford; the other is on River Road in Middletown, just a short distance from the Kleen Energy plant that was badly damaged by what officials are saying was a natural gas explosion.

GenConn's Milford plant is scheduled to be operational by June, as the Kleen Energy plant was before the explosion. The company's Middletown plant isn't scheduled to become operational until June 2011.

Will Sunday's accident push back the timetable for when the GenConn plant begins operating?
Common sense says it probably should, if for no other reason than to make sure that every precaution be taken to avoid another tragedy like the one that happened at Middletown.

But in the midst of a recession that continues to have Connecticut in its grips, there will be calls from some in the state to forge ahead with both GenConn power plants sooner rather than later.

GenConn got $534 million to build the two plants from a syndicate of nine major lending institutions that include the Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of America, financial services giant ING and BNP Paribas, a French bank. Banks that provide lending to major capital projects tend to get nervous when delays are mentioned concerning projects they are financing.

It will also be interesting to see how the Siting Council and the Legislature reacts to what happened. My guess is the Legislature will react by proposing legislation to more tightly regulate how these things are built.

All of this will be played out in the days, weeks and months to come. What's important to remember now is that building power plants can be a dangerous business.

The people of Milford don't need any reminder of that. Two construction workers died and a third was badly injured when a crane collapsed while construction of the Milford Power Co. plant was underway in Feb. 2000.

The rest of us would do well to think of that level of danger the next time we need to use electricity for something.


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