By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
SOMERSET, Mass. — The reaction to the announced closure of the Brayton Point Power Station has been overwhelmingly positive — even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the news. Yet, some question if New England’s largest coal power plant will stick to its plan.
“First, we must ensure that the plant does in fact close by 2017,” said Craig Altemose, executive director of Better Future Project. The Better Future Project was a prominent organizer in protests this summer. His group is concerned that the new owners of Brayton Point may appeal the power-purchase agreement offered by ISO New England, an offer so low that it essentially made coal power unprofitable. Cheaper natural gas is responsible for the low power-purchase offer, but a new deal could be brokered, especially if coal becomes more profitable.
“I think that‘s a valid concern and why we want to put a nail in the coffin,” Altemose said. He noted that the Better Future Project is urging Gov. Deval Patrick to ban coal power in order to meet state carbon reduction mandates.
John Torgan, formerly of Save The Bay and now Director of Ocean and Coastal Conservation at The Nature Conservancy, also isn’t convinced that coal or other fossil fuel burning is done at Brayton Point.
“I am skeptical about the plant’s closing,” he said. Torgan spent 18 years at Save The Bay, much of it working to tame water pollution from the power plant. After a long legal battle between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Brayton Point, then–owner Dominion Energy spent $570 million on mammoth cooling towers to lower the temperature of water discharges into Mount Hope Bay. After the new cooling system went online in 2012, harmful discharges were reduced by 95 percent.
That investment makes Torgan suspect that Brayton Point will keep going if coal is a money-making fuel in the U.S. again.
“We’ve know from issues like LNG, things can change a whole lot in a couple of years,” he said. The controversial proposal to import liquefied natural gas on massive tanker ships through Mount Hope Bay, ended as domestic fracking curtailed the need for imported fuel. Plans for a shipping terminal in Somerset were soon dropped.
James Ginnetti, spokesman for EquiPower, a subsidiary of Brayton's new owners, Energy Capital Partners, said the company knew when it bought Brayton Point it would struggle to operate beyond May 2017, because of low natural gas prices and the high costs to maintain the facility and adhere to environmental regulations.
“We bought three power plants from Dominion and did not ascribe much value to Brayton Point for these reasons,” he said.
Jonathan Peress of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) said it's nearly legally impossible for Brayton Point to generate coal or even gas power after 2017. Peress said he has an intimate knowledge of the regulations, because CLF is a member of the group that reviews and approves the market rules with ISO-New England.
“This is real. It’s over. It's done,” he said of Brayton's prospects as a power plant beyond 2017.
New England's five remaining coal-powered plants will likely not be able to survive financially either, he said. The low cost of natural gas, improved energy efficiency, better gas burners and more renewable energy mean coal plants will have to pay to sit on standby, a cost they likely won't be able to absorb.
"This is not an existential problem for the five (remaining coal power plants), they are already dead, they may not just know it yet,” Peress said.
Whether it's fuel prices or public pressure, advocacy groups claim victory after a long campaign of raising awareness and organizing protests. “Thousands of you sent messages to the power plant owners, made calls and donated. And now together, we've won,” said Sylvia Broude of the Toxics Action Center, a Boston-based advocacy group that has worked for seven years to stop coal burning at Brayton Point.
Other groups such as Save The Bay, CLF and the Clean Air Task Force, have spent decades on stopping the health risks attributed to Brayton Point and its coal burning. According to the EPA, emissions from Brayton Point are responsible annually for 32 deaths, 61 heart attacks and 472 asthma attacks in surrounding counties.
“The closure is the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of different groups across the region,“ said Jonathan Lewis, senior counsel for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force.
Recent pressure against the 50-year-old plant began in May, when a lobster boat temporarily blocked the arrival of a coal tanker. A high-profile rally in July resulted in the arrest of 44 protesters who marched on power plant property. In August, Brayton Point was the start of a multi-day energy exodus to Cape Cod in support of wind energy.
"Through our steady drumbeat of actions this summer, we gave the owners of Brayton Point something else to consider; that there were hundreds of dedicated people across the state and the region who would make personal sacrifices and work tirelessly to close this plant,” Altemose said.
Sherrie Anne Andre, who lives near the power plant, was arrested at the July 28 protest as an advocate for Fossil Free R.I. The fight isn’t finished, the Warren, R.I., resident said.
"While the plant's closure is a momentous victory, our excitement cannot overshadow our concern for those who will lose employment," she said. "We must remember there is still work to be done. it's important now more than ever that we rally in support of a just transition."