Environmentalists Call for Reinventing Brayton Point

Sylvia Broude of the Toxics Action Center recently announced a new vision for the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Sylvia Broude of the Toxics Action Center recently announced a new vision for the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

SOMERSET, Mass. — The Brayton Point coal-fired power plant has drawn the ire of environmentalists for decades. Now, as it nears its last days, there is an effort to transform the dirtiest of utilities into a renewable-energy oasis.

“Reimagining Brayton Point,” a report by a Cambridge, Mass.-based economics firm and endorsed by three Massachusetts-based environmental groups, envisions changing the 53-year-old facility into a renewable-energy hub and public park. Gone are the smokestacks; in their place are solar arrays, a food-scrap digester and a shipping port that serves offshore wind farms.

The hope is that the concept will deter a possible conversion into a new natural-gas power plant. That prospect seems likely given the high number of natural-gas pipeline and infrastructure expansion projects in southern New England, as well as support for these projects from politicians. The coal-fired power station in Salem, Mass., is currently undergoing a conversion to a natural-gas plant.

Brayton Point burns more than 1.2 million tons of coal annually.

Brayton Point burns more than 1.2 million tons of coal annually.

To avoid the same end here, renewable-energy advocates commissioned the 35-page study by Synapse Energy Economics Inc. According to the report, the existing high-voltage transmission infrastructure at Brayton Point can be upgraded to deliver wind energy to the grid. It's estimated $20 million cost is significantly less than the $1.3 billion to convert it to a large-scale natural-gas plant, according to the report.

The switch to a natural-gas plant would increase the likelihood of higher energy costs for consumers, according to the report. As the most dominant fuel for generating electricity in southern New England, natural gas-price spikes could cause costly price swings.

Revenue for the proposed idea could come from generating renewable electricity, payments from offshore wind developers, and other commercial and retail uses.

The project must also raise tax revenue. At its peak, the plant raised $12 million a year in property taxes for Somerset. The money has declined considerably as the facility reduced energy production and nears retirement. In 2014, the owner of Brayton Point announced it would close the plant by June 2017, because of high operating costs, lower costs for other fuels and the facility's need for upgrades. For now, Brayton Point is the last coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts and the largest in New England.

There is debate about how much new electric generation is needed to replace the 1,530-meagwatt power capacity generated by the plant and supplied to the regional power grid. Last year, the 680-megawatt Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass., announced it was shutting down because of poor market conditions and decreased revenue.

Advocates for a renewable-energy hub say new fossil-fuel plants aren’t necessary and will complicate the state’s greenhouse gas-reduction goals. In addition to supporting solar, wind and anaerobic digestion, the 234-acre Brayton Point site could foster research and development of new energy technologies, such as large-scale battery storage. A portion of the waterfront land could also generate jobs, tax-revenue and public use by building homes, schools, parks, stores and offices.

“The site could be cleaned up, re- zoned, and re-vitalized into a safer, more accessible space for a multitude of non-energy uses,” according to the report.

Town officials have been working with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), a state agency that promotes renewable energy, to consider alternatives for the site. Last December, the center released a report on how to close the site and consider new uses for it. The 53-page report says the presence of waste storage sites and fuel spills require remediation of contaminated property before redevelopment can commence. A wetland buffer must also be restored.

The state report says suitable new uses include a 9-megawatt solar array, a 500-kilowatt anaerobic digester, and offshore wind interconnection. Conversion to a 400-500-megawatt natural gas plant also is an option, as one of the three generators at the existing plant already runs on natural gas. The MassCEC report says a new pipeline would be needed to increase natural-gas output. An industrial marine hub is another option. Wind turbines aren't currently allowed for the site.

MassCEC has met with town officials and held three public workshops. The agency says it can further guide a public process to determine the most suitable use for the property on Mount Hope Bay. The final decision, however, is up to the property owner, Houston-based Dynegy Inc. The company has, so far, not announced its intentions for the Brayton Point site after shutting down coal operations.

The Coalition for Clean Air South Coast, Clean Water Action Massachusetts and the Toxics Action Center don’t fully support the MassCEC report. The groups say a focus on renewable energy creates more jobs and a healthier and more diversified space. The groups are holding a public workshop on the Synapse study March 15 at the Amvets Hall in Somerset.