PEABODY — Plans to build a 55-megawatt natural gas-powered “peaker” plant along the Waters River are forging ahead, but the Peabody Municipal Light Plant officials recently announced their decision to decommission an existing 20-megawatt fossil fuel-burning plant at the same location.
According to PMLP Manager Charles Orphanos, the decision to retire the older, less efficient plant was made after hearing the concerns of ratepayers and analyzing new census data which shows an increase in the number of “environmental justice areas” surrounding the plant.
“I expect this will help reduce some of the health concerns as well as some of the environmental concerns, specifically in the environmental justice areas here in Peabody,” Orphanos said, adding that the decision was made over the past month by the lighting commission, PMLP management, and PMLP attorneys.
Plans to build a new peaker plant, which would only run during periods of especially high demand for electricity, have been in the works since 2015. The plant, referred to as Project 2015A in public documents, would be owned and operated by the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC) and was previously approved to be built at PMLP’s Waters River substation, behind the Pulaski Street Industrial Park.
On May 11, MMWEC announced they were pausing the $85 million Project 2015A in order to address the environmental and health concerns of residents, seek input from stakeholders and consider alternative energy options.
During a June 24 Lighting Commission meeting, Orphanos said MMWEC made multiple changes — including the elimination of one of two 200,000 gallon oil tanks and the switch from ammonia to urea — over the past 2-½ months in order to lessen the environmental impact of the plant, but he added that PMLP had no plans to decommission wither of the two existing plants.
“It’s like driving an old car and saying ‘when do you get rid of it?’” said Orphanos at the time. “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.”
Since then, Orphanos said PMLP was presented with 2020 census data showing the number of at-risk communities living in the areas surrounding the industrial park. Previous data was from 2010, he said.
The old plant still has value, Ophanos said and noted that it brought in about $930,000 in 2020. But, he said, PMLP made this decision in “the best interest of Peabody.”
According to Orphanos, the process of decommissioning a peaker plant takes a minimum of three years and PMLP plans to begin that process once Project 2015A comes online.
“It is not a process developed by Peabody,” he explained, adding that the process is dictated by the region’s grid operator ISO New England. “They go through their procedures and protocols and the unit could even be denied to be d-listed (decommissioned).”
Orphanos also noted that ISO New England has the power to deny PMLP’s request to decommission the older plant, which is referred to as Gas Turbine Number One.
Gas Turbine Number One, which dates back to the 1970s, ran fewer than 60 hours in 2020 and emitted approximately 646 tons of carbon dioxide according to Orphanos. In 2019, he said, the plant ran fewer than 70 hours and emitted less than 800 tons of carbon dioxide.
“What has been a trend is both of our (peaker plants), and it seems to be throughout the whole industry, have been running less and less from an energy perspective. They seem to have a downward trend in run hours over the past seven or eight years which is partly due to more renewable energy resources coming into the market,” Orphanos said, adding that PMLP invests in numerous renewable energy projects and already produces 47% of its energy sustainably.
The proposed unit, he said, would be much more efficient than comparable units. According to MMWEC, the new plant is projected to run 239 hours per year and emit 7, 085 tons of carbon dioxide. Orphanos said he could not answer questions about how Project 2015A’s run time could change over the years because it is an MMWEC, not a PMLP, project.
Sudi Smoller, a Peabody resident and a member of the community group Breathe Clean North Shore (BCNS), said while she and other members of the group are grateful for PMLP’s decision to decommission Gas Turbine Number One, she still has additional concerns.
“We still don’t trust MMWEC or PMLP,” she said, noting all the changes which have been made over the past several weeks. “That suggests to me that we need more time to continue making improvements.”
She also noted that the two plants are not the same size, and decommissioning one plant does not change the fact the PMLP and other municipal light plants are investing in a fossil fuel resource even as climate change concerns are growing.
Smoller also said she is unhappy that MMWEC has not committed to doing an environmental impact study or comprehensive health impact study.
Jerry Halberstadt, another Peabody resident and member of BCNS, said he is also still hoping for more comprehensive environmental and health reviews.
“PMLP has promised to decommission an old, expensive peaker plant, but that does not offset the long-term harm that the new 55MW peaker plant will do,” he said in a statement. “The old plant is long past retirement age; it is a good, but not a sufficient concession. If PMLP and MMWEC were sincere in their desire to respect the concerns of citizens, they would enter into meaningful negotiations.”
Staff writer Erin Nolan can be reached at 978-338-2534, by email at email@example.com or onTwitter at @erin_nolan_.