PEABODY — Peabody Municipal Light Plant Commission meetings don’t usually attract a big crowd, but on Thursday night, about 15 people showed up to learn more about plans to build a natural-gas power plant in the city.
During Thursday’s meeting, PMLP officials fielded questions from members of Breathe Clean North Shore, a community group which formed in opposition of the proposed “peaker’ plant, about how plans to build the plant came to be, how much the plant will cost the city and what efforts PMLP is taking to combat the effects of climate change.
“I don’t pretend to agree with a lot of what you are trying to say,” said Commission Chairman Tom D’Amato. Regardless, he said, he commends the group’s passion and agrees that the city needs to do what it can to curb carbon emissions.
The plant, referred to as Project 2015A in public documents, would be owned and operated by Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC). Project 2015A was previously approved to be built at PMLP’s Waters River Substation, behind the Pulaski Street Industrial Park, but over the past two months, plans to build the plant have come under fire by residents, local and state officials, and community groups who say they weren’t informed about the project until recently and are concerned about how the fossil-fuel powered plant could impact the health of the surrounding community.
On May 11, MMWEC announced they were pausing plans to build the plat in order to address the environmental and health concerns of residents, seek input from stakeholders and consider alternative energy options.
Since putting the project on hold, MMWEC has made some changes to their plans. PMLP Manager Charles Orphanos said during Thursday’s meeting that these changes — which include the elimination of one of two 200,000 gallon oil tanks and the switch from ammonia to urea — were the result of conversations with PMLP and would lessen the environmental impact of the plant.
While the changes are a start, community members at the meeting said, PMLP and MMWEC should still be doing more.
“You have to promote the future,” said Stewart Lazares, a Peabody resident and member of the Conservation Commission. “You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again, because it will cost us money in the long run.”
Lazarus acknowledged PMLP’s and MMWEC’s efforts to ensure the proposed gas-fired plant is as efficient as possible, but he said he was concerned that the Conservation Commission was never presented with the plans.
“I’d like to see you come to the Conservation Commission with plot plans, wetland information, where the buffer zones are and what you can do in terms of discharge to prevent things from going into the water,” he said, noting that the plant would be right along the Waters River.
Residents also expressed concerns about the fact that even though PMLP and MMWEC have both emphasized the fact that the new plant would be state-of-the-art and cleaner than other “peaker” plants in the region, it would still burn fossil fuels and it would be the third peaker plant on the property. “Peaker” are only operated when peak demand for power spikes during extreme weather.
Orphanos acknowledged that PMLP has no plans to decommission one of the existing “peaker” plants.
“It’s like driving an old car and saying ‘when do you get rid of it?’” said Orphanos. “It is paid for and has tremendous value to ratepayers as a capacity asset. We plan to utilize that unit as long as it is safe and reliable and economic for our ratepayers.”
Orphanos also said if the plans to build the plant were to be thrown out completely, it would cost the city about $10 million — or $400 per ratepayer.
“And more importantly, we’d still need to cover that capacity [requirement],” Orphanos said, explaining that the city is required to have the ability to produce 140% of the energy used during the previous year’s peak at all times. He added that if the city weren’t able to produce that power on it’s own, it would have to purchase power from units which are less efficient than the proposed plant.
Resident Susan Smoller said she understands much of Orphanos’s argument, but she hopes to have more conversations with him and other PMLP officials in the future in order to come up with other, more sustainable solutions.
She said the question PMLP and MMWEC should be asking is “how are we going to do this without hurting people? And a third peaker is going to hurt people in Peabody and Danvers.”