SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

December 12, 2013

Watson: Power plant fight is about energy choices

(Continued)

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.

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