, Salem, MA

December 12, 2013

Watson: Power plant fight is about energy choices

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — The most recent developments surrounding the anticipated closing of Salem Harbor Station — and its replacement with a new gas power plant — have generated controversy, raised many difficult questions and posed some difficult choices.

The existing plant, a 61-year-old, 745-megawatt, oil-and-gas-fired power generator, is scheduled to stop producing electricity in May of 2014. A New Jersey-based company, Footprint Power, purchased the plant in 2012 and since then (and before) has been engaged in the process of gaining approvals for a new 674-watt (at certain conditions) gas plant.

Footprint has already received the majority of the approvals that it will need to proceed, and construction on the new facility is scheduled to begin this February. It would be ready to run by June 2016.

That the old plant had become obsolete was a mixed blessing for Salem. The city will lose its jobs and the substantial tax payments that it made every year. On the plus side, though, removal of the plant — currently part of Footprint’s plan — opens up the site for all sorts of marine-related development. Additionally, reducing carbon dioxide and other chemical emissions — coal is the worst fuel in this regard — improves Salem’s and the region’s air quality. And reducing CO2 emissions helps against global warming.

So there is plenty of ambivalence on the part of many regarding the new power plant proposal. We’re finally getting rid of one polluting, sprawling, somewhat-incongruously-located dinosaur, yes, but in exchange for yet another 45-year-lifespan power plant. Admittedly, the new plant will be smaller, visually better, state-of-the-art, and emit half the CO2 of coal, but it may be noisy, it still burns fossil fuel, and it’ll still inhibit somewhat the uses to which the rest of the site can be put.

Five considerations (of many) have dominated thinking about possible futures for the 65-acre harborfront site. In no special order, they are: creating tax revenues for the city; clearing and cleaning the entire site; identifying all feasible development options; establishing the degree of need (or not) for power generation; and identifying what role the reality of global warming plays in shaping our responses to the site.

Salem and the larger community have had good, substantial discussions about all of those issues. However, all of the items contain either enough complexity or enough unknowability to render our conclusions about them somewhat debatable. And to a larger degree than is typical, our conclusions depend upon our goals and assumptions.

It is probably fair to say that for many citizens the proposal of a new gas plant, with its knowable tax payments, removal of the old plant, and guaranteed cleanup of the site — and thus the likely, eventual, productive redevelopment of the entire site — was a persuasive combination. The alternative — the arrival of a conventional (non-power-plant) developer to fund removal of the coal plant — may have seemed too unlikely. And this brownfields site is further constrained by “designated port” restrictions and the proximity to the sewage treatment plant.

On a personal note, having followed closely (and written about) power plant issues for 15 years, and though believing today that we must be much more aggressive about moving to renewable energy, I was willing to “accept” the gas plant.

Nonetheless, legitimate questions still accompany the Footprint proposal. Does the electrical grid really need this specific plant? For both global warming and the quality of life in Salem, is a 45-year-lifespan gas plant the best long-term solution?

And it is precisely those questions that have precipitated recent developments. In November, the Conservation Law Foundation appealed an approval granted to Footprint by the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board. I spoke with CLF senior attorney Shanna Cleveland last week; CLF is arguing that Footprint has not satisfactorily addressed how its plant fits into a long-term (2050) state-mandated plan to reduce CO2 emissions. Additionally, CLF is suing over the loss of acreage that would be available for water-dependent uses.

In response to those lawsuits, state Rep. John Keenan has written legislation that would, essentially, permit Footprint to bypass CLF’s — and any and all — present and future appeals. I spoke with Keenan this week; he acknowledges that his amendment is unusual and extraordinary, but he feels that the region’s need for electrical power warrants the measure. It would not apply to any site other than Salem’s, and it would not preempt required regulatory provisions or hearings.

Keenan emphasized his reliance on the judgement of ISO, the Independent System Operator that monitors and operates the entire New England electrical grid — on which there are about 350 power generators of all sizes and fuels. I spoke with Ray Hepper, the general counsel of ISO, to understand its thinking about the new gas plant proposal.

Basically, over the next three to 10 years, given likely plant closures, likely energy efficiency gains, likely demand management, and the likely increase in electrical usage, ISO believes that the Footprint plant is needed. It is ISO’s difficult job to make assumptions about a large number of changing and unpredictable variables, and insure that the region always has unbroken power.

ISO makes a convincing case, and its managers have the enormous advantage of possessing both the details and the big picture. The irony is, although ISO is tasked to be policy-neutral and fuel-unbiased — not playing favorites, so to speak, say, about encouraging or discouraging gas versus wind — it could be one agency well-suited to help guide a transition to renewable energy (if so instructed).

And lack of clear plans — created by anyone — is really the important context here. Are we intent on making a transition to renewable energy? If so, where are the tools, plans, schedules, incentives, and market mechanisms to facilitate it? Massachusetts has passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which sets goals regarding the reduction, statewide, of CO2 emissions by 2020 and 2050. But the state has not been clear about how we’ll do that; and industry alone will not do it.

The proposed gas plant may be Salem’s best chance to clean and redevelop a valuable parcel. And, under one set of assumptions, the new plant can be considered necessary for energy reliability. But do those circumstances constitute an emergency that warrants a sharp cut-off of normal appeals options? Could other plant proposals, once accepted by ISO for future connection to the grid, argue for the same protection from appeals?

This entire case is a very close call. Every participant — CLF, ISO, Footprint, Keenan, the city — has expressed important arguments and has advocated differing responsible actions.

In some sense, it is uncertainty itself — and a partial vacuum of planning — that every participant is responding to. But rather than revising democracy — Keenan’s proposal — to create certainty, it would be better to use democracy to sort out the uncertainties, that is, allow the normal disposition of CLF’s lawsuit to begin to clarify how (if at all) power plants, emissions goals, and reliability needs are going to be coordinated.

Making a transition to renewable energy will be difficult and messy and will require all individuals and institutions to push themselves beyond their status quo practices. If we protect Footprint from appeals, we are undermining some of the very hard work that remains to be done to sort out the still-unclear path toward a sustainable future.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at