Salem power plant online

File PhotoSalem Harbor Station, on Derby Street and Fort Avenue

SALEM — Salem Harbor Footprint has officially flipped the switch.

The $1 billion natural gas-burning power plant on Derby Street and Fort Avenue went online overnight.

"Beginning at midnight, we'll be in operation and providing power to Salem, the North Shore and the region," said Scott Silverstein, chief operating officer of Footprint Power, which runs the plant.

The plant has been providing power to the grid off and on through a series of tests over the last several months. And while there's still some work to be done at the site, Silverstein said the plant is ready to be fully operational.

ISO-New England, the independent organization that oversees the region's electric grid, was notified of the change on Wednesday.

The project has taken a tumultuous path since construction began in 2014, from missed deadlines to neighborhood opposition. 

The original Salem Harbor Station coal-burning plant first launched in the 1950s and operated for decades. Footprint Power bought the site from Dominion Energy in mid-2012 and shut the plant down in 2014. Footprint celebrated the groundbreaking of the new plant in June 2015, though construction formally started months earlier.

Early on, deliveries of the massive resources needed to build the plant and the pounding of more than 1,600 precast concrete beams into the ground rattled the neighborhood.

Relations with neighbors were further strained recently as construction and testing continued after the expected completion date. Footprint kicked its general contractor, Iberdrola Energy Products, off the project in mid-April. Missouri-based Burns & McDonnell has been running the project since then. 

"There was a lot to be done given the state of play when Iberdrola was terminated," Silverstein said. "But through a lot of work and a lot of late nights, the plant is in a position where we can reach this milestone and our folks can get back to doing what they'll do best, which is operate a power plant while Burns & Mac complete things."

In fact, the plant has been on the hook to provide power since it was first scheduled to go online exactly one year ago. Footprint faced penalties from ISO-New England if power from the plant was ever needed in that time and couldn't be provided. 

Fortunately for Footprint, Silverstein said that never happened. 

"Those conditions didn't thankfully come into play," he said. "We were also able to go out to the market and find other people to cover our obligations at certain points when there was capacity."

Ward 1 City Councilor Bob McCarthy said the news of Footprint's commercial operations is "exciting. It's all good." That's, in part, because of what the neighborhoods around the plant have endured.

"It has been an extremely long construction cycle to get to this point," McCarthy said. "There has been a series of tests and what-not that have been run in the last six months that have been issues with neighbors. But from all accounts, what I'm told is that once the plant is up and running, it's going to perform as it was intended to perform."

But still, McCarthy said he's cautious optimism. After all, Footprint isn't out of the woods yet.

"The permitting came through the state and federal government," McCarthy said. "They're required to meet certain performance criteria with regard to noise and what-not. If they don't meet those, there's a whole series of steps that are laid out in their operating agreements."

While the plant is in commercial operation, that doesn't necessarily mean power will be coming from Fort Avenue around the clock beginning today.

"We're going to be on and running when we're needed for the grid," Silverstein said. "There are times in any plant's operations, just like normal operations, where you have to come down for one reason or another. For anybody that's starting up a new plant, those things tend to happen much more."

Site work is also still underway, with exterior work and landscaping scheduled to continue through December. Plans have also not yet come together for the greater site's future, as more than 40 acres of open space around Footprint will eventually see development of some kind.

McCarthy said he hopes the plant's operators take a break before firing that process up.

"Once it's up and running or on call, however ISO utilizes them, and we determine there aren't any mitigating issues, take a deep breath, exhale a little," McCarthy said. "And then start looking to move forward with what's going to happen with the remaining site."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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