When electricity demand peaks, dirtier fuels enter the power grid.
Though they run just a small fraction of the time, “peaker” power plants often fire up on the hottest days of summer or the coldest days of winter. And when they are on, they typically are among the worst polluters.
Local climate advocates have started a push to convert three Berkshire peakers to cleaner alternatives.
The Berkshire Environmental Action Team wants the plants to switch to using renewable energy and battery storage. To make that pitch, it’s seeking to build a coalition that already includes the Berkshire NAACP branch’s environmental justice committee, Masspirg Students, Indivisible Pittsfield and a number of local climate action groups.
“We want to create a large community of opposition to these plants and build this movement together,” said Berkshire Environmental Action Team Executive Director Jane Winn, who said at a recent online presentation that people can sign on to the petition through tinyurl.com/PeakerPetition.
Peakers tend to be located where relatively more people of color and low-income residents live, Winn said. The plants emit greenhouse gases that increase risks for respiratory ailments and contribute to climate change.
Pittsfield Generating, on Merrill Road, runs primarily on natural gas. In 2019, it emitted 39,176.89 metric tons of carbon dioxide and 6.65 metric tons of nitrous oxide while operating just under 6 percent of the time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The plant is adjacent to Allendale Elementary School and is near Pittsfield’s Morningside neighborhood, which the state considers an “environmental justice” neighborhood.
Peakers on Doreen Street in Pittsfield and Woodland Road in Lee run on kerosene. While they each run just 0.1 percent of the time, the Doreen Street and Woodland Road plants emitted 152.77 metric tons and 54.03 metric tons of carbon dioxide, respectively, in 2019, according to the EPA.
The Doreen Street site is near Williams and Egremont elementary schools, and Woodland Road borders October Mountain State Forest.
The peakers on Doreen and Woodland once were owned by Essential Power, which was acquired in 2016 by Charlotte, N.C.-based Cogentrix, which includes Doreen in its list of projects but not Woodland.
Cogentrix did not respond to an inquiry regarding the two plants.
Pittsfield Generating is owned by Hull Street Energy, which is based in Maryland.
With Pittsfield Generating’s air permit set to expire this year (Doreen and Woodland are so old that the Clean Air Act does not apply to them), now is the time for the community to reckon with the plant’s impacts, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team said.
Six New York peakers recently began a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy and storage, and advancements in battery technology might allow more peakers to do so.
The Berkshire Environmental Action Team wants to start a conversation with local plant operators about making a similar switch, and plans to pitch that change in a letter to Itochu executive Claire Chino.
Massachusetts provides incentives for battery storage and for solar energy. But, if the operators don’t budge, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team wants the plants shut.
Solar is a strong option for summer peaks, and offshore wind can help meet winter peaks, said Ben Hellerstein, executive director of the advocacy group Environment Massachusetts.
“There’s more and more work around the country thinking about how we retire these peakers, and we have so many better ways to get our energy,” Hellerstein said. “It’s challenging, but it can be done.”
A first step to minimize pollution from peakers is to reduce consumption at peak hours, an action that some people already take. “Peak shaving” limits the time that peakers spend on the grid and, as a result, the amount of greenhouse gases they emit.
Since the hottest summer days typically produce the highest demand for electricity, people can plan to delay energy-intensive activities, such as using an electric dryer or a dishwasher, until off-peak times.
Massachusetts residents can sign up for notifications about peak demand from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
The Berkshire Environmental Action Team also has joined a chorus of calls for grid operator ISO New England to change the rules governing New England’s power markets. Critics, including Attorney General Maura Healey, say the rules are outdated and make it difficult for clean energy to compete in the market with fossil fuels.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the ownership information for Pittsfield Generating.