In its campaign to convert three local power plants to less-polluting alternatives, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team has added local supporters as well as allies across the state.
The “peaker” power plants in Pittsfield and Lee burn gas and oil. They serve to meet peak electricity demand — during the hottest summer days, for instance — but rank among the oldest and most polluting plants, disproportionately impacting neighborhoods that already have experienced significant pollution.
More than 10 local groups have joined the coalition opposing the operation of the three plants, and a petition to close them has reached about 200 signatures, said Rosemary Wessel, director of BEAT’s No Fracked Gas in Mass initiative.
“When we put up flyers in the afternoon, you see signatures by the evening,” Wessel said.
As a plan to transition Massachusetts to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 appears set to become law, Wessel said the state’s long-term climate goals align with a move away from fossil fuel-burning plants.
“That’s another argument for us: to switch over before they’re forced to shut down and become extinct,” Wessel said. “It’s a win-win for the companies, and we would get cleaner air sooner.”
The two plants in Pittsfield are on Merrill Road and Doreen Street, and the plant in Lee is on Woodland Road.
Wessel said BEAT has contacted the owners and operators of the plants but has not received a response. The California-headquartered IHI Power Services Corp. runs the Merrill Road plant, and Charlotte, N.C.-based Cogentrix acquired the Doreen Street and Woodland Road plants in 2016.
BEAT is pushing for battery storage as a cleaner alternative for peak demand, especially if paired with solar or wind energy. Wessel said BEAT wants to have a conversation with companies to see which storage incentives they might qualify for. The Clean Peak Energy Standard and the ConnectedSolutions program, for example, aim to cut costs and reduce emissions.
The Merrill Road plant is near Allendale Elementary School and Pittsfield’s Morningside neighborhood, which the state has designated an “environmental justice” area. Doreen Street is by Williams and Egremont elementary schools, and Woodland Road is at the edge of October Mountain State Forest.
Peakers across the state
At BEAT’s March 10 virtual meeting, attendees from the Pioneer Valley expressed interest in working to shut down their local peakers.
BEAT also has joined the opposition to a new proposed peaker plant in Peabody.
The Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co.’s 2015A project would serve 14 municipal light departments across the state. The plant, primarily using natural gas with oil as a backup, is expected to run 2.27 percent of the time — 239 hours a year — to meet peak demand, and it would emit around 7,085 tons of carbon dioxide per year, a company spokesperson said.
The nonprofit has received an air permit from the state and a federal acid rain permit, the spokesperson said. The company does not believe that it will need other permits, and it plans to begin construction in the third or fourth quarter of 2021.
It said it believes gas-fired peakers play a role in reducing emissions — they tend to emit less than older plants — noting that the 2050 decarbonization road map from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration calls “minimal” use of gas-fired generation “fully consistent” with net-zero climate goals.
“Due to the low capital costs associated with gas-fired electricity, their relatively low emissions profile, and because of the speed with which a gas plant can be turned on to produce electricity, these already-existing resources are compatible with providing electricity when wind power is unavailable,” the road map says.
Critics, though, argue that building new fossil fuel infrastructure ignores evolving technologies and hurts health in surrounding communities.
“I actually don’t think the utilities did anything wrong in 2017 [when they committed to 2015A],” said Julie Smith-Galvin, a town councilor for Wakefield, which entered a contract to purchase energy from the project. “It was a very different electricity market. We had a very different outlook on when climate change was going to impact us and when we would see new technologies.”
The Legislature’s climate bill also would require municipal light departments to produce energy that is 50 percent carbon-free by 2030, 75 percent by 2040 and 100 percent by 2050.
While the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. says most municipal light departments are on or ahead of pace to meet those goals, 2015A’s critics say that provision appears to limit the life span of fossil fuel projects.
The climate bill also requires environmental impact statements to consider projects to account for existing pollution when assessing “cumulative impact.” Next to Waters River and a half-mile from two different environmental justice neighborhoods, 2015A would share a site with an existing plant run by the Peabody Municipal Light Plant.
While the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. said that canceling the project would result in financial penalties — and exiting its contracts could cost cities and towns millions — Smith-Galvin said she believes that there might be other options, such as selling Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric’s position to another company that uses battery storage or generates renewable energy.
Smith-Galvin will speak at a Tuesday “actionar” about the proposed plant, as will Massachusetts Climate Action Network Executive Director Sarah Dooling.
Dooling called 2015A “a problem” but said that, rather than “shame and blame,” the focus should be on how to support municipal light plants so that they can progress toward 100 percent clean energy.
“The bigger question that needs to be addressed is, what kind of business model and what kinds of resources will allow public utilities to make that leap form the dirty mix to 100 percent clean?” Dooling said.
This story has been updated to include an estimate of 2015A’s carbon dioxide emissions from the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. While the permit allows the project to emit up to 50,779 tons of carbon dioxide per year, the company estimates it will emit 7,085 tons per year. In addition, the ownership of the Merrill Road plant has been corrected.