BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The local approval process begins this week for the largest city construction proposal in decades.
The Planning Board will open a public hearing tomorrow night on Footprint Power’s request to build an $800 million natural gas power plant on the Salem waterfront. The review is expected to take several months.
The 7 p.m. meeting will be held at Bentley School, rather than the City Hall Annex on Washington Street, to accommodate the large crowd that is expected.
“We want to make sure everybody who is interested is able to attend,” City Planner Lynn Duncan said.
Over the next few months, Footprint will file plans with the Conservation Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals, which also must approve the 670-megawatt plant.
This local review is only a small part of a complex and daunting approval process.
Footprint has filed with the state Energy Facilities Siting Board, a nine-member review panel, and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. It also needs approvals from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The siting board held hearings this winter and is accepting briefs, or written comments, from interested parties. A decision is expected this summer.
At the same time, Footprint is in talks with Spectra Energy, which owns and operates the offshore gas pipeline that runs from Beverly to the South Shore.
Hanging over all of this is Footprint’s quest for funding.
Although ISO New England, operators of the regional power grid, ruled this winter that it will need power from the new Salem plant by 2016, a decision that guarantees several hundred million dollars in revenues, Footprint officials were unsuccessful in their bid for additional funding guarantees through the state Department of Public Utilities.
As a result of that setback, Footprint is seeking a new funding source, a process that is underway.
“I remain confident that we’re going to get it done for the very simple reason that the plant has to get built, the power is needed in the Boston area, and we’re the only ones out there who can fulfill the need,” Footprint President Scott Silverstein said.
Footprint remains “committed to this project ... and to bringing a successful project to this city,” he said.
State Rep. John Keenan of Salem echoed similar sentiments.
“They’re convinced, as I am, that the plant will ultimately be built because it is needed ... in terms of reliability,” said Keenan, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. “I don’t know how the final chapter of the financing will get written, but I think it will get written and get built.”
Keenan said the financial commitment from ISO is estimated at $600 million over five years.
“That capacity payment makes it very attractive for people to partner with (Footprint) right now,” he said.
Footprint, which shuts down Salem Harbor Station next year, has pledged to demolish buildings and clean up the site. Silverstein said they expect to start removing obsolete oil tanks later this year.
A state task force has been set up to oversee this process and to make sure the cleanup gets done.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.