Massachusetts Coal Plant Switches to Solar Power

Could the same thing happen at the Brayton Point Power Station? (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Could the same thing happen at the Brayton Point Power Station? (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

HOLYOKE, Mass. — At least one former coal power plant has gone renewable. The former Mount Tom Power Station — once one the worst polluters in New England — is on its way to becoming a giant solar farm.

The perennial member of the Toxics Action Center’s “Dirty Dozen” list of polluters broke ground Oct. 13 on a 5.76-megawatt solar field. The facility is expected to be operational by January.

Global energy giant ENGIE, based in Paris, made the switch to renewable energy to keep its power generation site, next to the Connecticut River, on the grid. To do so, the company will use a 20-year, power-purchase agreement to sell electricity to the local municipally owned utility, Holyoke Gas & Electric.

The 22-acre project was praised by environmental groups such as the Toxics Action Center and Neighbor to Neighbor as a win for the environment and a success for activism.

“This victory came after more than five decades spent inhaling soot and struggling to breathe, and more than five years of organizing to retire and repurpose Mount Tom coal plant,” said Claire B.W. Miller, lead community organizer for the Toxics Action Center.

ENGIE doesn’t attribute activism to shuttering its fossil-fuel power plant, but instead to lower demand for coal. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), a state agency that promotes renewable-energy projects, advised on the facility's transition to solar energy.

The Mount Tom Power Station opened in 1960 and closed in 2014 as natural-gas power became cheaper than coal. Over the years, the power plant was blamed for poor air quality in the Holyoke area and for releasing mercury into the Connecticut River.

The owner of the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset also have faulted low natural-gas prices for its decision to take the coal plant offline this May 13.

Houston-based Dynegy Inc. hasn't declared its plans for the 234-acre site at the top of Mount Hope Bay, but spokesman David Onufer said they are looking at options.

“I can tell you we’ve been approached by a number of parties who are interested in working with us, and we have interest in working with them. Brayton Point is a great site with a lot of positive attributes, so it’s understandable there's been a lot of interest," he said.

MassCEC has offered to help Dynegy in its transition. In a 2015 report, the agency concluded that the site is suitable as a renewable-energy hub capable of hosting a 9-megawatt solar field, an anaerobic digester and an interconnection point for offshore wind farms. The site could also be converted into a 400- to 500-megawatt natural-gas power plant and marine industrial park, according to the report.

Opponents of the natural-gas power plant concept say fossil-fuel energy hinders greenhouse-gas-reduction efforts and releases other pollutants through production and distribution. They also say the advancement of energy efficiency and the growth of renewable energy make a new fossil-fuel power plant unnecessary.

The Mount Tom solar farm will cost $10 million. It will feature 17,208 solar panels and generate enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.