, Salem, MA

November 13, 2013

Power plant facing new hurdle

Environmental group appeals state board's approval


---- — SALEM — The Conservation Law Foundation, one of the leading environmental advocacy groups in New England, has appealed a state board’s approval of the proposed Salem power plant.

The Conservation Law Foundation’s Nov. 8 appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which could take months to hear, has raised concerns about possible financing and construction delays for Footprint Power, the New Jersey firm that is on a tight timeline to open a 692-megawatt natural gas plant on the Salem waterfront by June 2016.

“Anything that would delay ... financing and the beginning of construction is a cause for concern,” said Footprint President Scott Silverstein. “... Certainly, we have a very limited time window to get this plant built.”

Footprint officials hope to have all the permits they need by January in order to secure final financing. Silverstein estimates it will take 29 months to build the plant, which means preliminary construction would have to start in February.

As part of this complex project, Footprint will demolish most of Salem Harbor Station, the coal and oil-fired plant slated to close in May.

In its filing, the Conservation Law Foundation said the Energy Facilities Siting Board made a number of errors in its ruling, which it contended was made without credible evidence that the Salem plant could comply with the tough greenhouse gas emission limits established in the 2008 Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act.

Footprint Power, the CLF noted, is the first developer to try to construct a power plant under the new law.

The Global Warming Solutions Act requires a statewide reduction of carbon emissions of 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

State Rep. John Keenan of Salem, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, took issue with CLF’s action.

“I’m not even sure our local Salem psychics could predict with any degree of certainty sea level rise, carbon emissions and other regulatory mandates in 2050, yet this is what CLF seems to demand of Footprint and the Patrick Administration,” he wrote in an email.

“It is irrefutable that this plant is a Global Warming Solutions Act mitigation project, as it will significantly reduce CO2 emissions (450,000 tons) by displacing older, less efficient, higher emitting plants in the New England grid.

“I have reached out to CLF in an effort to address concerns they may have and keep this project moving forward. Both the reliability of the New England grid and Salem’s economic well-being are dependent upon the successful and timely completion of this project. It is that important.”

The power plant is the city’s biggest taxpayer.

Silverstein said Footprint has worked closely with the CLF and even adopted suggestions from the group. Their appeal, he said, appears to be less about specific objections to the Salem project and more about concerns CLF has over how the new state law will be implemented.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “We seem to be caught kind of in the middle of that process.”

Shanna Cleveland, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said “Footprint had no objection to doing the analysis that ostensibly provides a business case for operating this plant through 2056 (the estimated lifespan of the plant). It’s simply unacceptable to propose building such long-lived, greenhouse gas-emitting infrastructure without also analyzing how it intends to meet state laws to significantly reduce climate pollution by 2020 and 2050.”

This appeal underscores the struggle going on within the environmental community.

Footprint’s project has won “qualified support” from Salem Alliance for the Environment, a local group that has expressed deep concerns about fossil fuels and fracking, but which sees this facility as a transition, or “bridge” plant, until wind, solar and other renewable energy sources can play a larger role.

Footprint officials have touted their proposal as a “quick-start” plant that can come on line within minutes to back up renewable energy sources on days when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun is stuck behind clouds. They also contend this plant will significantly reduce carbon emissions because it will be much cleaner than other plants — even other natural gas plants.

On another front, a new review process gets underway today before the Energy Facilities Siting Board.

After the state board approved the Footprint project last month following a yearlong review, Footprint filed a new permit request with the board. This is being done in the hope of avoiding a lengthy court appeal from legal challenges by two Salem residents seeking to overturn approvals from the Salem Planning Board and Salem Zoning Board of Appeals.

Tom Dalton can be reached at