Mystic Generating Station in Everett, Massachusetts.
Mystic Generating Station in Everett, Massachusetts, is one of 23 peaking plants in the state. Credit: Fletcher6 / Creative Commons

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Activists across Massachusetts are pressuring utilities and regulators to reconsider the need for some of the state’s most rarely used and least efficient fossil fuel power plants.

Campaigns in the Boston suburbs and western Massachusetts are taking aim at existing and proposed peaking power plants. The facilities — often simply called “peakers” — are intended to run only at times when demand for electricity is at its highest.

Utilities and grid managers say peakers are necessary to ensure reliability, especially as more intermittent wind and solar generation is added to the system. Critics, though, say they’re bad for the climate and public health, and that cleaner and more economical alternatives now exist.

“They are low-hanging fruit,” said Logan Malik, clean energy director for the Massachusetts Climate Action Network. “They aren’t in use a whole lot of time, and at the same time, technology is available as we speak, today, to replace these dirty plants with clean, renewable alternatives.”

Massachusetts is home to 23 such plants, according to nonprofit research institute Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy. Roughly two-thirds of them burn oil; the remaining plants run on natural gas. More than 90% of the plants are more than 30 years old, and thus more likely to run inefficiently and have higher greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. Some are so old they are not required to comply with the standards of the 1970 federal Clean Air Act.

Furthermore, they are often located in areas with concentrations of low-income households and residents of color, likely posing additional health risks to populations that are already more vulnerable. When peakers run, it can also raise costs for consumers, as they are generally the most expensive plants to operate.

“There’s just really almost no need for these plants,” said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. “Right now, the ratepayers are paying a hell of a lot of money to keep these plants on standby.”

Environmental advocates also argue that allowing new peaker plants to move forward and renewing permits for existing ones runs counter to the spirit of the state’s new environmental justice laws. The law, adopted last March, makes environmental justice a central principle of the state’s climate action. Among the provisions is a requirement for new projects that might cause air pollution to undergo an assessment of their cumulative environmental impact if they are located near environmental justice communities.

Though the law covers new projects, advocates would like to see the state use its discretion to apply the same standards to plants already built or approved before the new measures were passed.

“We are arguing that, given the new environmental justice parameters in Massachusetts law, it requires an additional further look,” said Mireille Bejjani, energy justice director with Community Action Works, a group fighting a proposed plant in the Boston suburb of Peabody. “We need to understand what this is going to do to the environment and the community.”

A peaker in planning

In Peabody, a suburb north of Boston, activists are fighting against a planned natural gas peaker plant. The 60-megawatt plant, which was first proposed in 2015, would generally burn natural gas but would be able to use oil as a backup. Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, the organization of small, municipally owned utilities behind the project, estimates the plant would emit a total of about 7,100 tons of carbon dioxide annually, an amount equivalent to the output of about 1,400 passenger cars over the same time. 

That number has locals and activists worried. The intended site is within an area designated an environmental justice community because of its high proportion of residents of color and households with incomes below the state median. The site also has existing environmental burdens: It is adjacent to a major highway, and located within an area that already receives low grades for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association.

The facility has received its needed approvals from the state, but campaigners are asking that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection reopen the case in light of the climate roadmap law, which requires new projects of the same size to complete environmental reviews that were not necessary for the Peabody plant.

The organization behind the project says its modeling shows the expected air pollution to be well within federal and state limits. Furthermore, the plant would help the participating utilities meet their obligation to make sure there is enough power available to the grid, allowing them to pursue more renewable energy projects going forward, supporters say.

Opponents are not convinced. They have staged demonstrations in Peabody and Boston. In May, a group of 90 doctors, nurses, and public health experts sent a letter to the project planners asking them to give up the proposal. In July, the Peabody Board of Health sent a letter asking the state to require a health and environmental assessment of the plan, and in November activists submitted a petition with more than 1,200 signatures asking for the same review.

Advocates argue that, in the seven years since the plan was introduced, renewable energy and battery storage have come far enough that they could replace the planned facility while keeping emissions down and protecting vulnerable communities. Plant supporters say batteries, which generally hold four hours of energy, would not provide enough reliability. However, a report commissioned by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network and the Clean Energy Group, a Vermont-based nonprofit clean energy consultant, backs up opponents of the plant, finding that batteries could deliver reliability, emissions reductions, and cost savings in Peabody. 

“These problems are serious enough that a company with forethought could find a way to make the situation work in ways that don’t rely on fossil fuels and, frankly, solutions of the last century,” said Cindy Luppi, New England director for Clean Water Action.

Western Mass

In western Massachusetts, activists are concerned about three facilities: two smaller, oil-burning plants, each more than 50 years old; and a larger, natural gas plant that has been in operation for 31 years. 

This last plant, which is located adjacent to designated environmental justice areas, is the main target of activists’ efforts. Though it only runs for a few hours at a time, these stints generally occur on the hottest days and do affect the air quality in the city, said Rosemary Wessel, program director of No Fracked Gas in Mass, a program of the Berkshire group.

“They only come on on the really hot days, when you really shouldn’t be putting more emissions into the humid hot air that chokes downtown as it is,” she said. 

In 2020, the plant put out 19,000 tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 3,700 average passenger cars. The prior year, the plant emitted more than 42,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

In the early summer, activists began holding weekly demonstrations near the plant, holding signs demanding clean air and an end to the pollution. In parallel, they reached out to the plant owners, a subsidiary of Canadian energy company Maxim Power, to ask what the company’s plans were to transition away from fossil fuels given the state’s carbon-cutting goals. Company representatives said they consider the natural gas plant a bridge to keep the energy supply reliable when renewable sources are insufficient, Wessel said.

“We said, ‘That’s the problem. That’s an old model that needs to change,’” she said. 

Wessel has connected the plant owners to the Clean Energy Group to help them look into storage and other options for moving away from fossil fuels. She is encouraged by the fact the company is still willing to engage in dialogue with activists and legislators, she said.

At the same time, activists have been in touch with the owners of the two smaller plants, and have received encouraging feedback, said Winn, of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. Despite promising signs, however, she expects activists will — and will have to — continue to put pressure on peaker plants, both in her region and beyond. 

“I do think this is going to be a big statewide initiative,” she said. “We should be able to get off these facilities easily. It just makes sense.”

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. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.