The Peabody Peaker Challenge

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Sun, 06/20/2021 - 01:02
Power lines in Peabody, MA

The Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC), acting for a project consortium of 14 municipal light plants, is proposing to build a 55-megawatt peaker power plant in Peabody to assure a supply of capacity power during times of heavy use and in an emergency.

Their proposed use of fossil fuel blended with hydrogen will be a threat to public health, harm the natural environment, contribute to the climate crisis — and the plant is a risky financial investment.

Municipal light plants provide reliable and inexpensive electric power. But their continued use of fossil fuels threatens to make the electrical system unreliable and expensive.

Although the Peabody Municipal Light Plant (PMLP) would only take 30% of the plant capacity, 100% of the pollution caused by the plant would directly and unfairly impact Danvers and Peabody.

Experts in public health, the environment, and energy; advocacy groups; and legislators, including state Sen. Joan Lovely, state Rep. Tom Walsh and state Rep. Sally Kerans, have expressed concern and reasoned objections. More than 1,000 people signed a petition for a halt to the plant.

In response, MMWEC has paused action on the plant and has scheduled a public meeting in Peabody for June 22.

We don’t need to depend on fossil fuel for all our power. Capacity requirements can be met by implementing clean energy alternatives and storage methods, including batteries. Solar and wind power can be used to charge batteries for use when needed. Many of the 42 municipal light plants already use renewable energy sources.

ISO New England allows light plants to satisfy capacity requirements by creating or storing power, purchasing it, reducing local demand or increasing local generation.

A public health threat

All people have a right to be protected from environmental pollution and to live in and enjoy a clean and healthful environment. Burning hydrogen-enriched natural gas in an industrial setting, as MMWEC plans, will create toxic nitrogen oxides. Carbon dioxide and methane will contribute to global warming.

A bad risk

Environmental concerns, new regulations, and rising fuel costs may lead to an early closure of the plant, creating a stranded asset: A plant that stands idle while users of electricity pay for it on top of their regular bills.

The proposed site, a crossroads of regional and local power, is vulnerable to flooding and would further concentrate and thus expose the electrical generation and distribution system to massive failure.

Has MMWEC done due diligence to exercise their fiduciary responsibilities? The financial and business risks for the plant are significant.

MMWEC justifies building the plant as a source of energy that is less costly than the market. How could that work?

MMWEC and the participating light plants have spent and/or obligated money in contracts — even before assuring financing. Some of the participating plants, including South Hadley, Wakefield and Marblehead, claim that money already spent can only be justified by continuing with their original plan. MMWEC has refused to respond to questions about the financials and business plan.

It would be prudent for MMWEC to compare the total lifetime costs and reliability of the proposed plant vs. the clean alternatives, using levelized cost or net present value (measures used for investment planning and to compare different methods of electricity generation on a consistent basis). The technology for batteries and other clean power solutions has advanced significantly in the last few years. Indeed, peaker battery systems may be more reliable and less costly over time than the traditional gas peaker turbine.

A cleaner solution?

Considering the risks and costs, the environmental impacts, the effect on nearby environmental justice communities, schools and a dairy farm; the damage to health and well-being; pollution of the adjacent wetlands; and adding to the climate crisis — we must take a good hard look at this project. We must consider alternatives — options that can meet power, cost, and reliability requirements and also reduce carbon emissions as mandated by the commonwealth in the “Next Generation Roadmap.”

Options to consider

MMWEC’s plan to use fossil fuel threatens to make the electrical system unreliable and expensive, as well as a threat to health and quality of life for ourselves and our grandchildren.

Peak power requirements can be met by purchasing capacity in the auctions run by ISO New England during evaluation, planning, and implementation for clean systems.

We can implement a resilient, efficient, local, and regional grid network to complement central source and distribution methods. Reliable, cost-effective battery peak solutions could be distributed over several municipalities.

The technology to solve the challenge of providing clean peak electrical power capacity exists. Will MMWEC pivot, innovate, and demonstrate leadership in clean energy?

Originally published in Salem News: Halberstadt, Jerry,  Column: The Peabody peaker challenge, Salem News, June 17, 2021.  For permissions, address Salem News.