5 june 2017

State closes door on coal, looks to new beginnings

Eagle Tribuen, June 5, 2017

The last coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts shut down last week. It went not with a bang, but a whimper.

Brayton Point in Somerset was the largest coal-fired plant in New England, and one of the so-called Filthy Five — old power plants that had been grandfathered under EPA regulations and exempted from strict pollution controls.

Salem Harbor Station was also one of the Filthy Five, until its closure in 2014. And while many celebrated the end of its polluting ways — particularly the loss of the four-story coal mound that blew dust into the air and onto neighboring homes and properties — there was also trepidation when plant owner Dominion announced in 2011 that the plant would be closing. What would happen to the Salem, Mass., tax base, what would replace the old plant and what would happen to its workers?

Regionally, there were big concerns, too, about whether the loss of coal plants would drive up the cost of electricity for everyone and hurt the economy.

That hasn't happened.

“The reality is that the lights have stayed on in Massachusetts, even as these facilities have shut down or transitioned to other types of fuel,” said Jonathan Levy, a Boston University professor of environmental health.

The region now relies on a mix of energy sources. Nearly half of New England's energy comes from natural gas, according to ISO New England. A third comes from nuclear power, with most of the remainder coming from hydropower, solar and other renewables. Coal, meanwhile, accounts for less than 2 percent.

Six years later, the outcome of the Salem plant's demise has shown that the end of coal is, in fact, just a new beginning.

This summer a new, gas-fired power plant is scheduled to open on the site of the old polluter. Cruise ships now bring tourists to what was once the plant's coal dock. And because the new power plant will use only a third of the property, the rest of the power plant's land will be developed.

Jobs lost when the coal plant closed won't be returning, but there will be opportunities for others with new development and tourism — and alternative energy, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the state.

It's not the best of all possible worlds; gas-fired plants use fossil fuel, too, although it's a much cleaner operation than with coal. But environmentalists pushed hard for a mandatory retirement date for the new plant, and Footprint, the developer, agreed in a court settlement with the Conservation Law Foundation to close it by 2050.

The end of coal in Massachusetts resulted not only from persistent environmental activism, but from a number of economic factors, including stricter pollution regulations, cleaner energy alternatives, and a changing market, in which coal use had become costly and inefficient. The availability of cheap, domestic natural gas only hastened coal's demise.

Even as these forces have combined to depress the coal industry, President Trump has vowed to revive it, but it seems a lost cause from the start. Rather than trying to prop up a dying industry by easing pollution controls, the country could emulate Massachusetts, where we are tightening pollution controls — new regulations take effect in August — and committing money to encouraging everything from use of hydropower and solar energy to rebates for electric cars.

These have the potential to create new jobs in newer industries, while safeguarding public health and the future of the planet.

"Coal is the past, clean energy is the future," Emily Norton, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, told reporter Christian Wade, commenting on the demise of Brayton Point.

The experience in Salem has shown that polluting coal plants can be closed without devastating the economy or driving up the cost of electricity. The future here is brighter than many could have imagined back in 2011.

Now it's a future that all of Massachusetts can celebrate.

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