Opponents say the gas plant, proposed for a parcel of land already home to a power plant, could essentially double the pollution potential on the land. Credit: David J / Creative Commons

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Massachusetts activists are worried that a natural gas power plant proposed for a largely residential suburb would create new carbon emissions and increase pollution in an already sensitive area.  

“This is not serving the ratepayers well,” said Sarah Dooling, executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, which opposes the project. “And it’s not serving the broader climate movement that really is focused on cleaning and greening the grid.”

Project participants, however, argue that the new plant will help them meet their legal obligation to ensure enough power is available to the grid, a move that frees them up to add more renewable energy to their portfolios.

The argument comes as Massachusetts is receiving widespread praise for the sweeping climate bill Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed into law. At a moment when the state is accelerating its efforts to go carbon neutral by 2050, the debate over this plant highlights broader questions about what role, if any, fossil fuels should play in Massachusetts’ clean energy future.

The proposed new plant would be a so-called “peaker,” intended to operate only in times of highest demand, estimated at less than 250 hours per year. The plant would run mostly on natural gas, but would also be able to burn oil as a backup. The plans include a 90-foot smokestack and a natural gas compressor, and the design is described in public filings as “highly efficient.” It would serve a group of municipal power companies — small, local utilities that provide power and sometimes gas to no more than a few towns. 

Plans for the 55-megawatt facility are being spearheaded by the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, a nonprofit that helps municipal utilities procure power supply and advocates for their interests. Fourteen of the state’s 41 municipal light departments have signed on to the new plant, though two have since filed requests to be released from their agreements.

Opponents have several objections. 

The intended site for the plant, a parcel of city-owned land in the community of Peabody, is already home to a 60-megawatt power plant, so the new facility could essentially double the pollution potential on the land. The site is also adjacent to a river, close to a public school, and just a few blocks from a neighborhood defined as an environmental justice community. 

Even running rarely, opponents noted, the plant would add particulate matter to the air and likely increase ozone concentrations in an area that already receives failing grades for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. The plant is expected to produce about 7,000 tons of carbon emissions each year, roughly equivalent to the pollution emitted by 1,400 average cars. 

There are also financial concerns about the plan. As Massachusetts begins implementing aggressive plans to cut down on carbon emissions, opponents worry that future regulations will stop the plant from being used, leaving ratepayers on the hook for the cost without receiving the promised benefits. 

“There’s just so many things that don’t feel right about it,” said Julie Smith-Galvin, a town councilor in Wakefield who is the municipal liaison to the town’s light and gas department. 

And, in the end, the idea of building a facility that would create any more carbon emissions at this point in the climate crisis just doesn’t sit well with many advocates. 

“The bottom line is: Burning fossil fuels at this time in human history is an obscenity,” said Judith Black, an environmental activist in Marblehead, one of the towns whose municipal power department has agreed to participate in the new plant. 

But the calculations just aren’t so simple, project supporters said.  

Their argument hinges on the difference between “energy” and “capacity” in the world of electric power. “Energy” refers to the actual electricity that is produced by power plants and other generators on the grid. “Capacity,” however, is the total amount of power that could potentially be generated and poured into the grid at any given time.

The regional grid operator, ISO-New England, is required to make sure the system always has enough capacity to meet the highest possible demand. To reach this goal, utilities — both investor-owned and municipal — are required to provide capacity to the system.

The municipalities that have agreed to participate in the Peabody plant are doing so primarily to secure capacity at what they say is a reasonable price that will remain stable for the life of the new facility. Without the project, these municipal departments would have to buy capacity on the open market, at variable prices that are expected to rise over the next 20 years, said Peter Dion, general manager of the Wakefield Municipal Gas and Light Department, which has signed on to the plan.

Buying capacity from clean energy projects, such as solar and wind, is also not an option, Dion explained. Because these forms of energy are intermittent and somewhat unpredictable, they count far less toward capacity requirements.

“At any given time they could be offline,” Dion said. “You have to have a way to replace that energy at a moment’s notice — that’s the role that a peaker plant like Peabody is going to play.”

To achieve the same level of capacity through renewable projects would require procuring hundreds of thousands of megawatts of wind and solar, Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company calculates.

Securing capacity from the new plant at an affordable, predictable price will free up the municipal utilities to procure more clean energy without worrying about the costs of their capacity obligations, he said. And most of the municipal departments are dedicated to doing just that, he said. 

Wakefield, he noted, has a strong portfolio of non-carbon power sources, including wind developments in western Massachusetts and hydroelectric power. All the energy the department has added to its mix since 2007 has been carbon-free, Dion said. 

Furthermore, the new climate bill requires the energy sold by municipal light departments to be 50% non-carbon-emitting by 2030 and carbon-neutral by 2050. But until there are dramatic improvements in technology, small amounts of natural gas generation will need to be part of the power mix to ensure power is available in times of extreme need, Dion said. 

“If you don’t, you’re leaving yourself exposed like Texas was last winter,” he said.

The project is in the process of petitioning the state Department of Public Utilities for approval to take on the debt needed to finance the new plant. A public hearing, accessible by Zoom, is slated for April 26, and activists are trying to rally people to register objections to the plan. 

“Everyone has to come out and express their concerns,” Smith-Galvin said.

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.