SALEM — The public got its first look last night at the natural gas plant that the new owners of Salem Harbor Station plan to build on the waterfront site.
The principals of Footprint Power, the New Jersey firm that bought the aging power plant last year, brought a model of the new plant to a public meeting at Bentley School. They also brought along the architect who designed it, Bob Fox of COOKFOX Architects of New York City, who showed slides to the crowd of more than 100 that filled the meeting room.
It’s nothing like the coal- and oil-fired plant that has operated on Fort Avenue for more than a half-century and is slated to close next year.
For starters, the new plant would take up only one-third of the 62-acre site. And its smokestack will be 230 feet tall, which is less than half the height of the tallest current stack.
A large portion of the new plant will be screened, Fox said, by a 25-foot-high mound of grass and trees.
Footprint CEO Peter Furniss made a number of promises, including one that got applause.
“The coal pile will be a thing of the past ... and that’s just the beginning of the story for the site,” he said.
The company executives said they will tear down the “entire existing power plant,” a process that will begin next fall with the removal of oil tanks. They hope to complete demolition by 2015 and open the new plant the following year.
Some of the debris from demolition will be recycled and used in a 12-foot security wall that will enclose the plant, Footprint officials said. They promised that the ugly fence that surrounds the site now will be gone.
“Pat Gozemba made me promise there will be no chain-link fence,” Furniss said of a request from a local environmental activist.
Hale Bradt, a local resident, asked if the smokestack will come down “all in one piece.”
“I’m sure we could raise a lot of money to (allow someone) to push a button to blow the whole thing up, but it wouldn’t be safe,” responded Footprint President Scott Silverstein.
A number of people raised environmental concerns about the need today for another fossil fuel plant; the dangers of fracking, a process used to obtain natural gas; and the virtues of renewable energy sources, like wind and sun, over natural gas. There was even a question about offshore wind turbines.
A Salem State student asked why the site couldn’t be used exclusively for renewables. Silverstein told her that wind or solar power, even if it covered the whole site, would produce only about 10 megawatts of power, compared to more than 670 megawatts generated by a gas plant.
“This site doesn’t lend itself to large-scale renewables,” he said.
Furniss said this plant will be much less polluting than other fossil fuel plants, including most current natural gas plants, and is a facility they see as a “bridge to a time when renewables are the predominant source of our energy.”
A business agent from a carpenters union asked if local workers will be hired to build the new plant.
Furniss said it will be a “union job” that will use local labor “to the extent possible.”
To lessen the impact on neighbors, Footprint said almost all construction materials and demolition debris will arrive and depart by ship or barge.
There was only limited discussion of the use of the rest of the site, since those decisions are years away.
There were continued references to how complex the regulatory process is for this plant. Not only are many state and local approvals needed, but Footprint must secure a long-term contract to sell its power to a utility, a precedent-setting deal that has sparked concerns and opposition.
Footprint hopes to file plans with the city this spring.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.