Laura Kiesel

Salem power plant sparks electric debate

Conversion of Massachusetts facility is symbolic in national switch from coal to natural gas

SALEM, Mass. — The giant towers and gray hulk of a recently retired coal-fired power plant loom over the otherwise pretty stretch of coastline.

It is not just the view it dominates. What to do with the plant also monopolized the thoughts of local resident Jeff Brooks as he took a seat at a dining room table in his neighbor’s home and began to explain his anxiety over plans to convert the site to a natural gas facility.

Even though it was a gray and rainy day, Brooks could see the plant’s smokestacks outside the window as he wondered what the conversion to a new fossil fuel means — both for the town of Salem and also as part of a growing national conversation about the direction of energy production.   

“Why spend millions of dollars on a gas plant that will only be here for 35 years when we could invest in wind projects that could last well into the future?” asked Brooks, a veteran worker in the power industry.

With many coal-fired power plants around the United States retiring — 288 out of 1,091 since 2011 — the situation in Salem sharply illustrates a dilemma facing many municipalities across the nation. Since burning natural gas emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide on average than coal, it has often been touted as a bridge fuel that can help cut down on domestic emissions while the U.S. shores up its energy efficiency and renewable energy infrastructure. But many climate experts now maintain that approximately 80 percent of worldwide fossil fuel energy reserves must remain untouched to avoid catastrophic climate change. So, the extent to which natural gas should be used, instead of renewable sources, has become a critical question when weighing local energy needs against global concerns. 

Why spend millions of dollars on a gas plant that will only be here for 35 years when we could invest in wind projects that could last well into the future?

Jeff Brooks

Salem resident

In Salem, this weighty dilemma is having a local impact. Brooks’ concerns over climate change and the potential safety risks of having a rebooted power plant in his residential neighborhood has compelled him to go door to door with a handmade petition against the plant, collecting over 200 signatures.

But, somewhat reflecting the divisions nationally, not everyone in Salem agrees with Brooks.

When nearly 400 people from across Massachusetts gathered at the gates of the plant site in early February to protest the natural gas plans, Geoff Millar was one of approximately 50 Salem residents who showed up to support it by staging a counter-protest. “We need a practical solution for the power grid and for dealing with the [coal plant] site,” said Millar.

Millar’s concern is valid. ISO New England, the agency that operates the regional power grid, has issued repeated warnings that northeast Massachusetts could face electricity shortages if the Salem coal plant is not replaced by another power source by 2016.

“While we ramp up on renewables, natural gas can play an important role in making some additional energy available to the grid and [the Salem plant] can be one of those plants we could rely on for the next several decades,” said Jeff Deyette, assistant energy research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who noted that natural gas generation increased by more than 50 percent since 2008.

“However, if it starts a domino effect — and at some point we’re going to have more natural gas plants — then we need to play that very modest role. And [if] it becomes something that takes our eyes off that longer term investment we need to make in zero-emission sources of energy, then that is something we need to be very careful about.”

The Salem Harbor Power Station began generating electricity for Salem residents in 1951. In 2012 the plant’s owner, Dominion, announced plans to shut it down due to growing public and legal pressures that included a citizen’s suit for the plant’s violations of the Clean Air Act. Last year, Dominion sold the plant and surrounding property to the New Jersey–based Footprint Power, which announced its intentions to convert part of it into a natural gas facility set to go online in 2016 and directly supplant not only the energy supply, but also the $4.75 million in tax revenues and other fees that Dominion had paid to the city. 

A graphic showing the expected pollution once the plant is reopened.
Laura Kiesel

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which along with HealthLink had brought the suit that led to the shutdown of Dominion, filed suit against Footprint Power in 2013 for not clarifying emission targets that would adhere to the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act. According to the court settlement it reached with CLF last month, Footprint will limit its emissions over the lifetime of the plant. It will also shutter the operation completely in 2050 in order to help the state reach its target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by mid-century.

“This settlement is the first of its kind and establishes a mechanism for addressing emissions from a natural gas plant,” said N. Jonathan Peress, Director of the Clean Energy and Climate Change Program at CLF.

But the settlement is not enough for some, even though it establishes a lifespan for the plan. Critics see the closing of the old plant as a chance to push a greener agenda and make a break with fossil fuels. They include Massachusetts House representative Lori Ehrlich, a Democrat and an outspoken opponent of the plant. “My community has spent over 60 years immediately downwind from the coal plant,” said Ehrlich. “Though this new plant will obviously be more modern, and gas is not as carbon intensive as coal, there will still be harmful emissions.”

The settlement also does not appease Brooks, who is frustrated about the quick permitting process for the Footprint plant, while Cape Wind, an industrial offshore wind project that was first proposed in for the Nantucket Sound 2001 and formally approved in 2005, has yet to be constructed.

“It is lack of political will,” said Brooks, of the contrasts between the two schemes. 

A sign showing other options for a site opened to the public.
Laura Kiesel

Other Salem residents are caught in the middle. Many said they were supportive, albeit with some reservations. “When compared with coal, gas is the lesser of two evils,” said retail worker Kate Raftery.

Fellow Salem resident Dan Randall agreed. “We’ll now have a lot less pollution here, but I still rather it was a solar or wind project,” said Randall, who also mentioned he had some concerns about the hydraulic fracturing extraction process often used for natural gas, known as “fracking.”

The fracking method, which accounts for over a third of all domestic natural gas extraction, has driven a recent energy boom in the U.S. At the same time, it has also become controversial because of its use of toxic chemicals, reported incidents of groundwater contamination and suspected role in increasing seismic activity and earthquakes near extraction sites.

Additionally, a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University and published in Science at the end of February found that methane leakage from extraction sites for natural gas is often significant, especially those that use fracking methods. Since methane has nearly 30 times the warming effect on the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the study concluded that natural gas development has a much higher emissions footprint than previously thought. The study confirmed earlier research conducted by Cornell University, which implied widespread development of natural gas might pose even greater risks for the climate than coal.

Scott Silverstein, the Vice President of Footprint Power, acknowledged it is often difficult to trace the source of natural gas once it is put into the distribution pipeline. But he stated that the new Salem plant will not pursue projects that are dependent on gas extracted by fracking.

“We believe that fracking should be subject to stringent regulations to ensure the safety of the process,” said Silverstein. “If it can’t be done safely, it should not be done at all.”

Meanwhile, Peress hopes the Salem plant will call attention to the need for more dialogue on the local level, as the nation becomes less dependent on coal. 

“There is a need for communities to engage in a meaningful, open process to start planning for the demise of their power plant long before it shuts down,” said Peress. 

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