MA House Passes Gas Leaks Bill

In a unanimous vote, the House passed a bill to require utility companies to stop leaks from their gas lines. As reported in the Boston Globe (2/13/2014),

Boston’s gas pipelines are riddled with thousands of small leaks — often the cause of the occasional rotten-egg-like whiff of mercaptan-laced gas that passerbys smell. Federal and state legislators have called for fixes, citing both safety concerns and the amount of money lost from leaking gas that never gets to consumers.

State Representative Lori Ehrlich, the Marblehead Democrat who filed the bill, said she was delighted at this step toward addressing the problem.

“The law has permitted gas companies to merely monitor more than 20,000 gas leaks throughout the Commonwealth,” Ehrlich said in a statement. “These unrepaired methane leaks waste almost $40 million of a natural resource annually, and often lead to deadly explosions.’’

SAFE has been a strong proponent of fixing the gas links, particularly in light of the proposal to build a new gas-generation power plant in Salem.

CLF and Footprint Close to Agreement

The Salem News (2/12/14) reports that Conservation Law Foundation and Footprint Power are close to announcing a settlement in CLF’s lawsuit challenging Footprint’s effort to site a new gas plant in Salem.

In a joint motion filed yesterday with a state board, the New Jersey power plant developer and the Massachusetts environmental organization said they “believe that they may be able to reach a settlement” in the contentious case that has been fought at public hearings, before state boards, in court filings and at private meetings.

If a settlement is not reached, arguments in the case will begin March 4 before the Massachusetts Supreme Judical Court. Read more.

SALEM GAS PLANT AND THE LOW-CARBON FUTURE

Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE) released the following statement in response to the February 8 demonstration in Salem by 350-MA.

SAFE fully agrees with 350MA that the United States must take immediate steps to address global climate change. However, SAFE believes that the proposed quick-start, high efficiency natural-gas power plant for our city is consistent with the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act and can play a positive role in decarbonizing the electric grid in the three decades ahead.

As a seaside community, Salem should be on the forefront of addressing the climate crisis. If we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, including sea level rise that could risk putting a part of our own community under water, the world must reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050. Like the sponsors of the protest against the proposed gas plant in Salem, we are in search of a viable path forward.

Our vision for Salem includes a large-scale maritime wind farm off of Cape Ann—a project that would become more viable if the proposed Salem gas plant goes forward.  And as advocates for solar energy, we are pleased that Salem is one of 15 communities that have been selected for the second round of Solarize Mass.

We also recognize the growing evidence that hydrofracking is severely damaging the environment and peoples’ lives. We strongly oppose this practice and believe it should be stopped until proven safe. To that end, SAFE supports federal and state regulation of fracking and legislation that forces utilities to prevent chemical contamination of drinking water supplies and to fully address methane leaks in the gas distribution infrastructure.

The “easy” work in reducing emissions has been done here in Massachusetts, with all coal-fired power plants scheduled to close by 2017. Going forward the choices become more difficult. Among the steps we can take to further reduce emissions in the short run is to replace older gas generation with high-efficiency quick-start plants similar to the one proposed for Salem.

The challenge of renewable energy is that it is intermittent: the sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind can die down at any time. The older plants that currently power the grid are not good at filling in these interruptions in power production because they take 12-36 hours to ramp up to full power. The proposed gas plant for Salem is a much better choice to be paired with large renewable projects because it offers super-efficient generation with the flexibility of being able to increase or decrease power generation in an hour’s time, without having to run any more than needed.

During this recent cold spell, our reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuels – coal and oil – for our region’s electricity has escalated dramatically. This situation underscores the need for gas as a transitional fuel until renewables can take up the slack. Otherwise, we are exposing ourselves not only to the unnecessary risks of rolling brownouts that ISO New England (the region’s non-profit electric grid manager) has so forcefully warned us about in their recent statements but also a reliance on dirtier fuels that increase our greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas power generation is not a panacea but rather a transitional step. It is a much cleaner-burning fuel and creates fewer carbon emissions than either coal or oil. For gas generation to be part of the solution, however, public policies must ensure that gas extraction and transmission meet the highest standards.

In the next 30 years, we must make major changes in how we generate, transmit and use electricity. Our policymakers here in Massachusetts and in Washington, DC, need to make a far greater commitment to investing in renewable energy generation and in the national network of transmission infrastructure needed to deliver that power to every community in America. Once that infrastructure is in place, then natural gas generation can—and should—be phased out.

This is a need and vision that will take decades to make real. During this transition we have a choice of relying on older gas generation or upgrading to the latest and most efficient gas turbines that will allow us to introduce more renewables, not fewer, into the regional power grid.

Our goal should be to build a national transmission network powered by thousands of renewable energy projects distributed all over the system. That will allow us to decarbonize our electricity in this country safely and dependably.  If we choose not to build high-efficiency gas plants at strategic locations on the existing power grid, we miss the opportunity to create the infrastructure of the future–today.

We must recognize that in order to transition from our current electric system to one in the future powered mostly by renewable energy, we need several interim steps. We believe this proposed plant is one of the steps on this pathway to a low carbon future that our region and country must pursue and develop.

We should not let unrealistic short-term idealism, regardless of how well-intentioned, limit long term progress.

Read  SAFE’s earlier statement on Footprint Power’s proposed gas generating plant for Salem Harbor.

Salem Plant Must Be a Bridge to Renewable Future

A Boston Globe editorial asserts the same position as SAFE on the proposed gas plant for Salem–the technology provides a bridge to a renewable energy future.

THE REPLACEMENT of a heavily polluting coal power plant with a much cleaner natural gas facility would once have been welcomed by almost anyone concerned about climate change. The fact that plans to do just that in Salem have aroused opposition from some environmentalists reflects both the urgency with which advocates are demanding a transition to a post-fossil-fuel America and the fact that this region’s success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions has dramatically raised the standards for what counts as efficient in today’s energy mix.

Those opposing the Salem plant are surely right that any new investment in power generation should be consistent with the goal of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the supporters — who include the state government and Salem’s mayor — have expressed their willingness to use the plant as a short-term bridge to a clean-energy future. As long as they and the plant’s owners produce a plan showing how that will happen, both sides should be able to embrace this plant as a reasonable step toward reliable power generation and a cleaner environment.

Natural gas, which emits fewer carbon emissions than coal or oil, has come to account for two-thirds of the state’s power, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The benefits of supplanting the dirtiest of fossil fuels has been enormous. The level of greenhouse gases in New England dropped so dramatically that the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative last year slashed its carbon dioxide emissions cap from 165 million tons to 91 million tons. The cap will continue to drop 2.5 percent per year from 2015 to 2020.

But natural gas, as a fossil fuel, still releases carbon into the atmosphere. In his State of the Union address, President Obama described natural gas as “the bridge fuel that can power our economy.” But the Sierra Club calls gas a “bridge to nowhere,” saying the chemicals and emissions involved in extracting new gas reserves with hydraulic shale fracturing, or fracking, are dirty and dangerous.

Footprint CEO Peter Furniss says the plant will start off as a crucial supplier of electricity to New England’s often strained power grid, especially as the Vermont Yankee nuclear station and the Brayton Point coal plant come off line. But Furniss says the Footprint gas plant will eventually taper to a role of firming up energy supplies as more solar and wind sources come online under Massachusetts’ aggressive green-energy policies, which require an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. The state’s facilities siting board approved the plant last fall, saying it “contributes to a reliable, low-cost, diverse regional energy supply with minimal environmental impacts.” Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary Rick Sullivan says the plant is part of the “balancing act” of maintaining reliability while converting to a clean-energy future.

But some environmental watchdog groups don’t buy it. The Conservation Law Foundation has filed an appeal of the plant’s approval with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that the state is undermining its long-term emissions targets. The lawyers assert that regional CO2 emissions have already dropped close to the level of modern gas plants, meaning that adding another one does nothing but maintain the status quo. The CLF wants more proof that the plant will not derail the long-term goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

As a mid-sized city seizing a rare chance to revitalize its waterfront, Salem is understandably eager to build the plant. The Patrick administration makes a plausible case for the need to get the plant online to assure that Massachusetts has enough power at peak periods. But the conservationists also make an important point: Today’s energy decisions must be viewed in terms of the fight to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. There should be a plan on paper for the plant to operate at levels that don’t impede the achievement of an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. Gas powers the economy for now, but the state must clear the way for a clean-energy future as soon as technologically feasible.

Proposed Gas Plant Could Help Reduce Emissions Regionally

SAFE co-chairs Patricia Gozemba and Jeff Barz-Snell respond to a recent article in the Boston Globe:

RE “NEW Salem plant a test case for state climate law: Utilities call power vital; environmentalists alarmed” (Page A1, Jan. 19): The implication in Erin Ailworth’s article is that all environmentalists oppose the Footprint Power project in Salem. Salem Alliance for the Environment, a leader in the fight to end coal-burning at the power plant, is supportive of Footprint’s efficient, quick-start natural gas plant. At the same time, we continue to speak out against special favors for Footprint, such as a recent amendment in the Legislature, since pulled back, that would have ended all review at the state level for the proposed plant.

As a group of progressive environmentalists — whose membership includes engineers, scientists, and environmental policy experts — SAFE believes we need to be practical in building a bridge to a renewable future. We are active in promoting a wind farm off Salem Sound, one or more wind turbines in our city, increased renewable capacity through the Solarize Salem initiative, and city-wide energy efficiency.

The proposed plant would reduce regional carbon dioxide emissions while providing the high certainty of available energy when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. SAFE believes that it is too simplistic to draw a line in the sand with a cry of “no more fossil fuels.” Highly efficient gas plants, such as the one proposed for Salem, would help reduce emissions now as we scale up much-needed renewable energy projects going forward.

Plant can be part of renewable energy future

SAFE members recently published two letters in the Salem News.

From Karen Kahn:

David Pelletier, in his Dec. 31 column (”They got their wish, and now they don’t want it”), unfortunately undermines his credibility by implying that climate change concerns may be overblown. Over the last 15 years, the risks from fossil fuels have increased, and many credible people now are concerned about our reliance on natural gas, as well as coal and oil for electricity production.

What makes Healthlink’s position ingenuous is a refusal to look at the specifics of the Footprint proposal. The SAFE board, of which I am a member, has studied the proposal and concluded that it is not only good for Salem but a positive step forward for the environment.

The proposed gas plant has many features that make it a good transition to a renewable energy future. Its quick-start technology allows for half of its full capacity to come online in just 10 minutes, reducing the amount of carbon pollution that older plants spew during the full day that it takes them to get online. Moreover, this type of plant can provide “firming” power for renewables, quickly getting up to full production when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Reducing the risks of climate change is a goal we should all share. It is unfortunate that our communities are fighting with each other over a good proposal, rather than seeking common ground in addressing the crisis that we all face.

From Stan Franzeen:

In his Jan. 8 letter to The Salem News (“Are wind and solar energy the answer?”), Robert D’Entremont vividly points out the real-world challenges of replacing Salem’s massive coal-burning power plant with solar or wind technologies.

The following day, Commonwealth Magazine revealed that “data compiled by New England’s power grid operator indicate plants running on coal and oil have been producing between 14 and 21 percent of the region’s electricity over the last few days. During all of 2012, coal accounted for 3 percent of the region’s power output and oil just 1 percent. The recent shift to coal and oil sharply increases carbon emissions, but it keeps the lights on.”

Although I believe that non-carbon energy sources are critical to solving our growing climate crisis, the above report is a perfect illustration of SAFE’s position that until sustainable technologies take up the slack, gas will be needed to meet the energy requirements that ISO New England has so forcefully concluded we need.

It’s a bitter pill to take, but what are the real-world alternatives?

CLF challenges climate impact of new gas plant

The Conservation Law Foundation has taken Footprint Power to court, arguing that the proposed quick-start combined cycle gas plant cannot meet the high standards set by the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act. The controversy over the plant is laid out in a January 19 Boston Globe article by Erin Ailworth. SAFE continues to support the proposed plant as a bridge to a renewable energy future.

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.  Read more.