SALEM — The power struggle over a proposed $800 million power plant on the Salem waterfront only intensified this week following the strong support the natural gas facility received from the independent organization that oversees the electric power grid in New England.
On Wednesday, ISO-New England warned that if the 674-megawatt plant does not open as scheduled in 2016, the region could face “controlled blackouts” and may have to resort to “trailer-mounted diesel generators” to provide additional power.
State Rep. John Keenan of Salem, a strong plant supporter who filed controversial legislation to try to block appeals by plant opponents, said the legal filing by the power grid operator should end the debate over whether the plant is needed.
“In my 18 years dealing with ISO, I’ve never read such a strong position — that’s just how serious this is,” Keenan wrote in an e-mail.
“With this, I can’t imagine anyone further refuting or denying the need for this plant.”
However, one of the plant’s staunchest opponents, Marblehead Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a longtime environmental activist, said ISO’s argument did not sway her.
“I believe, as does the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, that there’s a way to address a 129-megawatt shortfall, without building a huge, 674-megawatt, fossil-fuel burning gas plant,” Ehrlich wrote in an email.
An Ehrlich aide said she is referring to a 2008 study by the state agency on the closure of coal plants in Massachusetts and the feasibility of replacing that lost power through energy efficiencies, renewables and a number of other measures. Salem Harbor Station, which is slated to close in May, burns both coal and oil.
“I stand by this opinion,” Ehrlich stated, “but respect ISO-New England’s request to have this hearing expedited for their certainty.”
A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which oversees the Department of Energy Resources, said that ISO-New England, and not the state agency, is the expert on this issue and has the final say.
“We rely on ISO-New England for information about reliability, so we would defer to them on the issue,” said Mary-Leah Assad.
ISO has asked the state Supreme Judicial Court, which will hear the Conservation Law Foundation’s appeal of state approvals won by plant owner Footprint Power, to issue a ruling by the end of January. Dragging this out any longer, ISO said, will jeopardize the project and potentially threaten energy reliability in the region.
The strong stand by ISO brought an equally strong reaction from one of the leaders of the Salem Alliance for the Environment, a local environmental group that, while it has reservations about fossil fuels, has given the gas plant “qualified support” because it sees it as a bridge technology to a future time when the state can rely more on wind, sun and other measures.
In a blog post on SAFE’s website, Jeffrey Barz-Snell, co-chairman of the grass-roots group, questioned the opposition by two traditional allies, the Conservation Law Foundation and HealthLink, a North Shore environmental group.
“Is this what CLF and HealthLink really want to do: prevent the construction of the cleanest and most efficient gas plant in New England and ensure the use of trailer-mounted diesel generators?” he wrote.
“... Ladies and gentlemen, if CLF has their way here, we are going to be stuck with a hulking, rusting coal-fired plant here in Salem and a bunch of trailer-mounted generators running on diesel.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.