SAFE has struggled with the environmental issues raised by the likely construction of another fossil fuel-burning plant on Salem Harbor. Like our allies in the environmental movement, we dream of a future in which energy demand is reduced dramatically by advances in energy efficiency, and is supplied by clean and renewable sources. We believe that this vision is achievable if our country and other nations rally to the urgency of the climate change crisis at hand. Even with an urgent mobilization, however, we expect the transition to a low-carbon world to take several decades to achieve. There will be no overnight fix to the climate crisis.
The City of Salem has before it a proposal by Footprint Power to redevelop the existing site of the Salem Harbor Generating Station. This large, multi-year project would be the largest transformation of the Salem waterfront since the current plant’s construction in 1954-56. Footprint Power is the new owner of the site and seeks to demolish the existing plant and related structures, remediate the entire site, and then build a 692 MW combined-cycle gas plant on 18-20 acres (on the eastern portion of the site, near the South Essex Sewage District facility). The current plan calls for a tight timetable with the new plant online and ready to generate power by 2016. Then, once the new plant was online, they would redevelop the remaining 38 acres of the site.
Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE) has expressed qualified support for this project for several reasons. Despite environmental concerns laid out below, we believe that the proposal, under the right circumstances, can provide a meaningful opportunity to transition to a renewable energy future.
SAFE believes that people in the United States and around the world must heed the calls of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to reduce carbon emissions. The last consensus report called for industrialized, G-8 countries to reduce their CO2 emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050 if not sooner. This is a generation-defining and historic challenge we face and it will require major changes in US energy policy and the lifestyle of American citizens.
Consequently, SAFE has struggled with the environmental issues raised with respect to supporting another fossil fuel-burning plant on Salem Harbor. While gas burns more cleanly than coal or oil, it still contributes to climate change.
In addition, this new plant would be using gas purchased from hydrofracking operations. Because hydrofracking is not well regulated and is rapidly expanding, it has become an environmental threat. In some regions, hydrofracking is threatening the purity of ground water supplies. In addition, millions of cubic feet of methane are escaping into the atmosphere each year. Methane (or CH4) is 26 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 (over a 100 year period). Thus, the science is uncertain as to whether the lifecycle carbon emissions from using natural gas are a substantial improvement over coal or oil. At the same time, we believe that appropriate regulation could significantly mitigate the environmental damage that results from the process, making natural gas an appropriate, if not ideal, “bridge” to a renewable energy future.
The Energy Transition
Our society needs to increase our use of renewable energy and reduce our consumption and dependence on fossil fuels for electricity and transportation. One viable path towards this future goal of relying more on renewable energy sources is to use high-efficiency, combined-cycle gas plants like the one being proposed for Salem. A plant with this design and technology can increase or decrease its power production at any given moment, and therefore is an ideal facility to be paired with large-scale renewable energy projects such as wind and solar farms, whose generation is intermittent and constantly changes.
The only other type of power generation readily available to do this is nuclear energy. For obvious safety and environmental reasons, SAFE’s members do not support that option. Rather we aspire to live in a society that harnesses the wind, the sun and waves to sustainably provide our country and planet with the energy it needs.
This sort of major transition will take a generation or more to accomplish. It begins however with building and putting in place the infrastructure that opens up the potential to harness renewables. SAFE therefore supports the Footprint proposal, with qualifications, for the sake of this larger vision.
We take our role as local environmental advocates seriously. Our support is not, and has never been, unconditional; it is premised on our researched understanding that the proposed plant will contribute to the net de-carbonization of the regional grid, and will further enable, rather than impede, the development of renewable energy. Should these premises prove otherwise, or if evidence emerges that the proposed plant will undermine the general health or well being of Salem or its neighboring communities, SAFE’s position may change.
Addressing Climate Change
Addressing global climate change is a significant challenge for our community. We live in a coastal city that is already feeling the impact with increasingly high tides, severe weather, and coastal flooding. Though the proposed plant would be less polluting than its predecessor, the more energy it produces, the more CO2 it will release into the atmosphere. It is only appropriate as a transition, not as a solution. It does not in any way lessen the need for the government, or us as citizens, to keep driving down our carbon emissions, at the individual and societal level.
With this in mind, SAFE’s vision for our area includes the development of an off-shore wind farm off the coast of Salem and/or Cape Ann. Though there is no proposed plan for a maritime wind farm at this time, it is our belief that public opinion will come around on this topic as more people locally realize and understand the profound and urgent challenges we face in reducing carbon emissions here in New England.
As public sentiment grows in favor of offshore wind and as the market for such projects becomes more attractive, SAFE wants to ensure that this current plant will be “wind farm ready.” This plant will be situated right next to a major hub in the regional power grid. This is an ideal point of interconnection for a large-scale renewable energy project, especially when accompanied by a generation facility that can ramp up and down its generation relatively quickly and readily “firm” power generated from an offshore wind farm.
Community Benefits and Issues
A gas plant like this one can be a part of the larger transition to a low carbon economy and society, but this will not happen automatically. Decisions and agreements now will frame the path of future development. There are times when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine and tides are not flowing. During such moments, we will need reliable power generation over the next 50 years. If this plant can allow, over the long run, an increased reliance of renewable energy here in eastern New England, then we support its construction with the provisions outlined below.
SAFE’s support for the proposed high-efficiency, combined-cycle gas plant on Salem Harbor is conditioned on the following:
1) There is an investment in infrastructure on the site now to make the proposed plant “maritime wind farm ready.” This includes reviewing the proposed design to ensure that no new construction would make it more difficult to connect to a wind farm later.
2) The sound and emissions impacts on neighboring properties and the immediate area are measured, and estimated by a reputable independent engineering firm to be minimal or negligible.
3) Footprint agrees to provide a detailed description of the condition in which the remainder of the former power plant site will be left upon the final completion of the proposed new gas plant and before any other additional development commences. If 20 acres of the 58 acres will be used for the gas plant, what will the remaining approximately 38 acres look like when the proposed plant is completed? There is a concern that the portions of the property not be used for the new plant could be “fenced off” as an unattractive post-construction zone until other development projects are identified.
4) There is an agreement to create a robust and binding community benefits agreement (CBA) with the City that transfers with ownership of the plant. Elements of this CBA would most likely need to include:
- A clear and legally binding dispute resolution process between the City and the Plant owners;
- The assurance that the community will have input of how the remaining 38 acres of the larger site is developed;
- The formation of a community foundation funded by the developers and owners of the facility but managed by an independent board of directors (as is called for in CBAs prepared for other cities hosting new, gas-fired generation plants.)
- The identification of future opportunities to share heat processes with South Essex Sewage District (SESD), the largest user of power in Essex County. If waste heat from the power plant were used by SESD, there would be less need for cooling fans, reducing noise and local impacts. This is a potentially “low hanging piece of fruit” that would be tragic to ignore; conversely, a mutually beneficial, energy-saving relationship between the two facilities could result in significant energy savings.
5) The developers publicly pledge to advocate for strong oversight and regulation of hydrofracking. The process is now exempt from provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act that serve to protect underground sources of drinking water; and, as noted above, must reduce its methane emissions.
6) The proposed facility design meets green building and sustainable landscaping standards.
7) The plant offsets its carbon emissions locally, by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that reduce the carbon footprint of the City of Salem. This could include supporting home weatherization, retrofitting public buildings, solar panels for all public buildings and residences that can make effective use of solar energy, small and large scale wind projects. Some of this could be covered in a Community Benefits Agreement.
Ultimately, SAFE supports this proposed plant with the above qualifications because we see the potential for this plant to be part of one solution for meeting the problem of carbon emissions regionally and globally. This will only happen, however, if local and regional leaders and community members insist upon it. As sea level rises and storms grow more extreme and agricultural systems become compromised, concern about Climate Change will grow in urgency over the next 10 to 20 years. It is up to us as a society and a community to embrace that potential and support and pursue ways to live more lightly on this planet.