By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Instead of building a new fossil-fuel power plant in Burrillville, R.I., why not convert the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., to a natural-gas facility?
The idea seems obvious. The site already has a natural-gas pipeline connection, high-voltage transmission lines, an electrical substation and a community that has adapted to one of the most polluting power plants in the region.
According to several reports, however, it’s not that simple. First, the proposed power plant isn't needed. An analysis from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey claims that ongoing improvements in energy efficiency and enacting new systems that curb energy use when demand is highest, called "demand response," offset current and future power needs. Increased storage of liquefied natural gas and new imports of hydropower also make new natural-gas power plants unnecessary, according to the report.
A study released in March by Cambridge, Mass.-based Synapse Energy Economics Inc. also counters the claim by governors Charlie Baker and Gina Raimondo that power plants are necessary to end energy shortages in the region.
Converting Brayton Point to natural gas simply creates many of the same problems as the proposed Burrillville Clear River Energy Center, according to the Synapse report.
Brayton Point has a natural-gas boiler, but the power plant would likely need to be dismantled and rebuilt to accommodate a new facility. The power station would also require public vetting, and multiple state and federal permits before any construction could begin.
“It’s not as simple as just flipping a switch and bringing more natural gas to the site,” said Sylvia Broude, executive director of the Toxics Action Center, one of the environmental advocacy groups that sponsored the Synapse report.
A new natural-gas plant would emit carbon dioxide during its 30- to 40-year lifetime, or longer — Brayton Point is more than 50-years-old — hampering efforts to meet state greenhouse-gas-reduction goals. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts aim to cut emissions by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.
There are better options for the site, according to the Synapse report. The waterfront property is ideal for a mix of renewable-energy generation and innovation. Power could come from solar panels and food digesters, and serve as a jumping-off point for offshore wind projects. The 234-acre parcel atop Mount Hope Bay could also leverage its waterfront location to attract new homes, businesses, schools, shops and office space — all things that could replace the jobs and tax revenue lost when the power plant closes.
Large-scale wind and solar projects are expected to fill the 1,600-megawatt void the coal power plant creates when it goes offline this May. Renewable-energy developers are already proposing to put the site to use. Denmark-based DONG Energy, which also goes by Bay State Wind, recently filed a request with ISO New England, the manager of the regional power grid, to build 800 megawatts of wind power south of Martha’s Vineyard. The project intends to reach mainland at Brayton Point and connect with the existing substation and large-scale transmission lines.
Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset, admitted that she doesn't understand all of the intricacies of the power grid, but she expects that with the growth of large renewable-energy projects, fossil-fuel power won’t be returning to Brayton Point.
“Judging by where Massachusetts is going with fossil fuels I would not expect that they would be able to convert that plant to natural gas,” Haddad said.
Brayton Point and other plants going offline shows that the loss of coal power will likely be replaced by renewable energy. On Aug. 5, Baker signed an energy bill that requires Massachusetts to buy up to 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind over the next 10 years. Energy companies are already making plans in waters between Rhode Island and Massachusetts to take advantage. The Vineyard Power Cooperative and OffshoreMW LLC of Princeton, N.J., have leased land about 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard for an unspecified wind project.
Providence-based Deepwater Wind plans to develop some 200 offshore wind turbines in 250 square miles of the federally designated Rhode Island-Massachusetts Wind Energy Area. The Deepwater ONE project alone is expected to have the capacity to generate about 1 gigawatt of electricity.
As for Houston-based Dynegy, the owner of Brayton Point, it says nothing more than that the power plant will be closed at the end of May 2017.