SALEM — Nearly 100,000 tons of coal piled four stories high sprawl across a section of the waterfront occupied by Salem Harbor Power Station, the 63-year-old plant that burns this dirtiest of fossil fuels to generate electricity for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts homes.
A decade ago, replacing the aging plant with a far cleaner natural gas facility would have thrilled environmental and public health advocates, who designated Salem Harbor as one of the state’s worst polluters. But now that it’s about to happen, environmental advocates are challenging the state’s approval of a gas-fired power plant for the site after Salem Harbor shuts down in June.
The lawsuit, now before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, is one of the first to be brought under a 2008 state law aimed at dramatically reducing greenhouse gases, which are produced by fossil fuels — such as coal, oil, and natural gas — and blamed for rising global temperatures. Its outcome could not only test the state’s commitment to fighting climate change, but also its ability to site new plants to meet the demand for power.
Already, the operator of the region’s power grid is warning that even a delay in completing the new Salem plant over the next two years could lead to electricity shortages, and possibly rolling blackouts. In addition, the power industry says a decision that overturns the Salem project’s approval would discourage developers from building other plants, leading to even more acute energy shortages.
“If this project can’t get built,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, a trade group, “what can you build in Massachusetts?”
But the Conservation Law Foundation, the Boston advocacy group bringing the case, says the Patrick administration failed to adequately consider its own climate change law when state energy officials approved the Salem plant. Compared with coal, natural gas produces far lower levels of greenhouse gases, environmentalists acknowledge, but the state won’t meet the aggressive pollution reductions mandated by the law if it continues to rely on fossil fuels for energy.
“This is the place where we decide whether or not we are going to make good on our promises on climate, or whether we are going to continue doing more of the same,” said Shanna Cleveland, a senior attorney with the group. “If we don’t get this right now, there is no way we are going to meet our climate mandate.”
Climate change is an issue that has gained urgency in many quarters in recent years. It has long been a priority of Governor Deval Patrick, who calls the state law, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008, as one of his key accomplishments.
Earlier this week, Patrick announced the state would award more than $50 million to communities to help protect them from powerful storms, rising sea levels, and other environmental problems often attributed to climate change.
Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, said a gas-fired plant fits “clearly” within the mandates of the climate change law and would cut greenhouse gas emissions from current levels by replacing coal.
Built in 1951, Salem Harbor Power Station generated electricity for as many as 745,000 homes. But the rise of cheap natural gas, resulting from newly opened domestic reserves, and tougher environmental regulations made the coal plant uneconomical. In 2011, Salem Harbor’s then-owner, the Virginia-based energy company Dominion, announced it would shutter the plant by this summer.
The next year, Dominion sold the plant and property to Footprint Power LLC, a New Jersey company that plans to replace Salem Harbor with a state-of-the-art natural gas plant on less than one-third of the old plant’s land. The project has gained support among Salem’s political leaders, who had feared the loss of $4.75 million in taxes and other payments from Salem Harbor’s previous owners; Footprint agreed to pay the same amount.
In addition, the smaller gas plant would open acres of prime waterfront property to development, including a harborwalk, larger wharf, and expanded facilities for ferries, fishing vessels, and cruise ships.
“The only thing worse than having a coal plant in your neighborhood is having a closed coal plant in your neighborhood,” said Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll. “We’re ready to trade coal ships for cruise ships.”
The state Energy Facilities Siting Board approved the plant last October. A few weeks later, Conservation Law Foundation appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, arguing the board had not sufficiently weighed the impact the plant might have on achieving the greenhouse gas reductions mandated by the state law.
The Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to expedite the Salem Harbor case, but a decision isn’t expected until spring. Even if the court decides in favor of the state, Footprint Power’s financing and two-year construction schedule would be months behind schedule.
Without a replacement for the old Salem facility by 2016, ISO New England, the agency that oversees the power grid, warns that Boston and northeast Massachusetts are “expected to face an electric capacity shortage” that could lead to rolling blackouts or the use of trailer-mounted diesel generators — which emit far more pollutants than natural gas — to fill the gap.
“The ISO simply cannot make megawatts of generation materialize that are not on the system,” the grid operator’s lawyer, Ray Hepper, wrote in a court filing. In an interview, he added, “We’re really, as a region, at the point of needing new power plants.”
Peter Furniss, Footprint Power’s chief executive, and Scott G. Silverstein, its chief operating officer, say that’s what they’re trying to provide.
“This plant will displace much more highly polluting plants,” Furniss said during a recent tour of Salem Harbor.
As he walked through the plant, where conveyor belts move tons of coal to be pulverized and burned, Furniss noted that two of the original General Electric turbines are still in use today, and he pointed to a switch- and dial-covered panel in the control room that looks like it belongs in an early episode of “Star Trek.”
The new plant would feature modern technology, with generators capable of shifting down to half capacity in about 10 minutes instead of the 12 hours it can take the old machinery. The facility would have a much smaller emissions stack, about half the size of the tallest stack at the plant today. Footprint will also clean the site of contaminants left by the old plant.
Furniss and Silverstein are moving to close financing and order materials to begin construction, but the appeal by the Conservation Law Foundation has made that difficult. If the case delays the project’s start too long, completing it by 2016, when grid operators say the state will need the power, may not happen.
“This project needs to get done,” Silverstein said. “It’s better for the environment, it’s essential for Salem, and it’s needed for reliability.”