THE MASSACHUSETTS Municipal Wholesale Electric Company and the staff at some participating municipal light plants say that building a new, 60-megawatt combined natural gas and oil peaker power plant in Peabody is absolutely necessary.
The proposed peaker plant will run only when energy demand is high – and will cost ratepayers in 14 communities with municipal light plants $85 million to build. The proposal for a dirty peaker plant, initiated in 2015, is disconnected from the recent landmark passage of the Next Generation Roadmap climate change bill and increasing statewide recognition that Massachusetts must transition away from fossil fuels.
In his June 1 op-ed in CommonWealth, Ronald Decurzio identified two reasons for building the plant: to prevent an energy crisis like the one that occurred in Texas, and to reduce carbon emissions. These issues are important, but constructing a new fossil fuel power plant in 2021 is not the best way to address them.
Last winter, Texas experienced exceptionally cold weather which led to an electricity shortage and power cuts that affected over 4 million people. The Energy Information Administration points to three main contributing factors: much higher electricity demand than anticipated, lower natural gas production, and equipment outages.
The gas industry and pro-gas organizations have been quick to blame renewable energy and clean technology as the leading cause of the Texas energy disaster. But the reality is that this crisis was caused by poor planning and an over-reliance on natural gas.
Natural gas accounts for 53 percent of the T total generating capacity in Texas. While renewable energy facilities experienced lower-than-expected production, the real culprit was a failure to properly weatherize infrastructure which, in turn, led to a failure in natural gas distribution and generation. When wells, pipelines, and other infrastructure froze, the state was unable to provide the urgently needed energy, leaving millions without power and water. Texas was warned of this vulnerability after the last deep freeze of 2011 that froze gas lines and created power outages across the state.
While Massachusetts infrastructure is not as vulnerable to extreme cold weather events, there are important lessons the Texas energy disaster offers the Commonwealth. First, the climate emergency is here and is affecting our daily lives now. Scientific research attributed the extreme weather event in Texas to climate change. Continuing to rely on fossil fuels for our energy will worsen the climate crisis and contribute to more extreme fluctuations in weather.
Second, other energy options that can operate independently of the utility grid and large distribution systems — such as battery storage — may be more effective than natural gas peaker plants at increasing resilience at the community level. Distributed clean energy systems, particularly solar paired with battery storage, can prevent outages during extreme weather by quickly responding to grid fluctuations and, when an outage does occur, continuing to provide local power by operating like small, self-sufficient grids, powering essential community services until utility service is restored. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s recent study identified a primary benefit of battery storage systems as being the avoided costs of a power outage. Municipal light plants in Massachusetts — including Sterling Municipal Light Plant — experience these benefits first hand.
If municipal light plants and utilities want to prevent a Texas-like crisis, clean technology offers a better solution than continued reliance on peaker plants that run on fossil fuels. By investing in clean technology, the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company can more effectively achieve its goal of meeting the capacity requirements for municipal light plants while reducing harmful emissions.
The argument that the Peabody peaker plant will be more efficient than existing older dirty peaker power plants does not justify its construction. Relying on natural gas as a bridge fuel slows down the transition to a clean energy future. Peer-reviewed research demonstrates that significant leaks in the production and distribution of natural gas make using natural gas comparable – from an emissions standpoint – to the use of coal and oil. Investing in a plant powered by fossil fuels in 2021 unnecessarily commits participating communities to a dirty energy source for the next 30 years or more.
The position of the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company disregards the health of Peabody residents and neighboring communities. Decurzio fails to mention that the proposed plant is to be built less than half a mile away from two environmental justice communities and less than a mile away from seven local schools, a hospital, and several day-care centers.
Peabody currently has several other sources of environmental pollution, including two natural gas peaker generators, 3 locations of toxic release, 15 air pollution sources, and 85 sources of hazardous waste. The last thing that this community needs is another polluting facility to worsen air quality and make Peabody residents and neighboring communities sick. If a peaker is truly needed, then designing a clean energy alternative to polluting peaker plants is the logical path forward.
The argument that clean energy technology does not offer a viable solution to meeting required capacity is questionable. Utilities across the country have demonstrated that renewables paired with battery storage can serve as grid capacity, including Sterling Municipal Light Department, which is saving thousands of dollars in capacity costs each year with its battery storage projects. Capacity projects over 60 megawatts have also been built and are effectively serving communities.
Acknowledging Massachusetts’ new climate statutes and capacity constraints, the Massachusetts Climate Action Network is working with the Clean Energy Group and Strategen to conduct a technical analysis that will identify cost-effective clean technology options for the dirty Peabody peaker. This report will support deliberations about clean energy technology options.
The decision to pause the project on May 11 to solicit feedback is greatly appreciated by concerned Peabody residents and others in the 13 participating communities. On June 10, the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. announced a public meeting will be held on Tuesday in Peabody.
Two weeks’ notice is insufficient to plan a robust and informed discussion. Nonetheless, we hope that the meeting will be the first of several with the other communities whose light boards have signed the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company’s contract.
Sarah Dooling is executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network.