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Editorial: Mount Tom coal-burning plant should shut down

The owners of the Mount Tom power plant in Holyoke bet on the wrong horse — but did the right thing — when they invested tens of millions of dollars on environmental upgrades. Today, looking ahead, we believe they should consider another major step for the little-used coal-burning facility by retrofiting it to produce electricity from renewable sources.

The owners, GDF Suez, should at the same time be mindful of the importance of the plant to Holyoke’s tax base and make plans for retraining for the 30 employees who work there.

Gov. Deval Patrick has appointed a task force to look at the future of Mount Tom and a coal-burning power station in Somerset. The only other coal-burning plant in Massachusetts, in Salem, is scheduled to close in 2014 and be converted to natural gas.

Coal is clearly on its way out as a source of power in New England. While 18 percent of the region’s electricity was produced by coal-fired plants in 2000, now only 6 percent is.

We think the task force represents a step forward. Coal plants can be hazardous to the health of nearby communities, they release a potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and are increasingly unsustainable financially.

State Sen. Michael Knapik, R-Westfield, whose district includes Holyoke, is a member of the task force, and we think he should recommend that it hold hearings in western Massachusetts. Sierra Club activists recently addressed the city councils in Northampton and Easthampton, urging that the plant be closed.

We would also like to see Patrick ask the state Department of Environmental Protection to require the Mount Tom plant to get a new permit, as its previous one expired five years ago.

Electricity consumers should not be worried that the closing of Mount Tom would cause their lights not to go on. The plant has been in operation less than 20 percent of the time, largely because it has become so much more expensive to generate electricity from coal as opposed to natural gas.

The state has invested in energy efficiency and solar power, and continued work on this front should make the electricity that Mount Tom generates replaceable with other sources, even at times of peak demand.

We’re not sure why GDF Suez, from a purely business point of view, would want to stick with a power plant that is in operation so seldom, and whose financial future is so bleak. Production of natural gas has been booming because of the procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, reducing the price that utilities have to pay relative to coal. The University of Massachusetts and Amherst Regional Middle School have been saving money after converting to natural gas. It’s even being exported to Europe now.

There’s a difference of opinion about the health impact of the Mount Tom plant. While the owners point to a major investment in technology to reduce pollution, Sierra Club activists claim they are not effective and that sulfur dioxide and mercury emitted when the plant is operating create problems for those with respiratory problems. We think it doesn’t make sense to take any chances with residents’ health when there are reasonable alternatives available.

Although it is not feasible to convert the Mount Tom plant to natural gas, and the site is not conducive to wind turbines, the production of solar energy there should receive consideration. That would enable Holyoke to continue to receive tax revenue from the plant, workers there could stay employed, mountaintops in the Appalachians wouldn’t have to be dynamited and there would be no worries about contributing to climate change or asthma attacks.

And the lights would still go on.

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