BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — PEABODY — State Rep. John Keenan told the North Shore Chamber of Commerce that “rolling brownouts” in the region are a real possibility in 2016 should plans for the redevelopment of Salem Harbor Station into a natural gas power plant sputter out.
Keenan, a Salem Democrat and chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, suggested to North Shore business leaders that those communities in state Rep. Lori Ehrlich’s district be the ones to suffer brownouts should the power plant project fail to come to fruition. Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat and environmental activist, opposes plans for a new power plant.
“I’m sincere in that,” said Keenan to a scattering of applause in a ballroom at the Peabody Marriott during a packed executive breakfast yesterday morning.
New Jersey-based Footprint Power bought the coal-and oil-burning power plant last year and plans to build a new natural gas plant by mid-2016. The current plant is set to shut down in May. It’s a project Keenan said could total $1 billion when one factors in site remediation, the cost of the power plant and redevelopment of other portions of the site.
Keenan said the new gas plant is necessary not only for Salem, but for the region in terms of making sure there is a reliable source of power in years to come.
“If you live in Marblehead and you live in Swampscott, call (Ehrlich) and tell her you don’t want to lose your power in 2016,” Keenan said.
Keenan also urged business leaders to contact Conservation Law Foundation board members and advocate in favor of the plant’s redevelopment. The nonprofit environmental advocacy group has filed legal appeals against various approvals for the project.
After the meeting, Keenan said his talk about targeting rolling brownouts was purely rhetorical.
“I’m trying to drive home a point,” Keenan said. “If you want power, you need power plants.”
“I’m sure he was just kidding,” said Ehrlich, a Marblehead resident. “He wouldn’t want to harm anyone in my district, just like I wish nothing but the best for his constituents.”
While Ehrlich opposes the new gas power plant across Salem Harbor from Marblehead, she said yesterday she has tried to stay out of legal appeals challenging its permitting and has tried to stay out of the power plant debate.
“As a resident and a representative of a downwind community, I don’t see any reason to support this project,” Ehrlich said.
Keenan said the power plant is one of the largest projects being proposed in the state, if not New England. He said he has long been committed to making sure the Salem Harbor Station site was redeveloped properly.
“If that does not happen,” Keenan said, “that power plant may sit rusting on the waterfront for the next 20 to 30 years.”
Ehrlich said she was drawn into the power plant debate when Keenan attached language that would snuff out further legal challenges of the gas plant to a bill she had sponsored, meant to prevent gas leaks.
Keenan said yesterday that even he knows this language probably has constitutional problems.
Ehrlich said she objects to the language, and she defended the right of others to appeal the new power plant.
“The permitting process is already condensed, and it is there to protect the public,” Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich says any gap in energy needs with the shutdown of Salem Harbor Station could be met through upgrades in transmission lines and existing equipment, and energy inefficiencies. But Keenan pointed to ISO New England’s assertion that the new gas power plant is necessary. The nonprofit operates the region’s bulk power system and wholesale electricity markets.
“Without Footprint, there would be a shortage of capacity in the (Northeast Massachusetts/Boston) capacity zone for the 2016 and 2017 commitment period,” ISO New England officials wrote in August. “In other words, without Footprint, the NEMA/Boston capacity zone would not meet reliability standards.”
Ehrlich said the communities she represents have been downwind of a coal and oil-burning power plant for 60 years, and the construction of the new gas plant will mean a fossil-fuel-burning facility will remain on Salem’s waterfront across the harbor from Marblehead for decades to come. She has said she does not think the new gas plant will be much cleaner than other gas plants in the region.
“If the project is worthwhile, it should be able to survive the permitting process,” she said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.