Advocacy group brings Peabody gas plant issue to South Hadley health board

  • South Hadley Electric Light Department GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/29/2022 7:01:35 AM

SOUTH HADLEY — A physician-led organization fighting climate change has urged the South Hadley Board of Health to consider asking the state to further scrutinize the construction of a fossil fuel plant north of Boston — a project the town’s electric company has signed a 30-year contract to draw energy from.

On Tuesday, South Hadley’s Board of Health weighed a request from the organization Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, which called on the board to join health boards in Peabody and Holden in writing to Gov. Charlie Baker to ask for an environmental impact report and health impact assessment of the gas-burning plant that is set to be built in Peabody.

The construction of the “peaker” plant, which is designed to run during times of peak demand during the year, drew protests last month in front of Peabody District Court, where demonstrators held signs calling the investment in non-renewable energy “peak stupidity.” In November, protesters in Holyoke, whose electric company is also invested in the project, held a rally in front of the region’s wholesale power operator, ISO New England, joining organizers in Peabody in calling the operator to move the electrical grid away from fossil fuels.

The matter was an issue of intense debate last year between one elected member of the South Hadley Electric Light Department board, Peter McAvoy, and his fellow commissioners. McAvoy frequently raised his voice during meetings in opposition to SHELD’s use of energy from two nuclear reactors and its participation in the Peabody project, harshly rebuking the rest of the board.

McAvoy was first elected in 2018 and reelected last year. He resigned from the board in October after his behavior drew repeated censure from his municipal light board colleagues.

The municipal light board’s meeting on April 22 was a typical example of the tensions on the board at that time. In just one exchange, an upset McAvoy told his colleagues he was “the only one worthy amongst you” to chair the board because of the other members’ views on SHELD’s participation in nuclear and fossil-fuel projects.

“I’ll stop you right there, Pete,” fellow member Kurt Schenker said. “Get off your high horse and cut the crap. Grow up.”

“We’re talking about life and death circumstances here, Mr. Schenker,” McAvoy responded, later growing red in the face as he berated the others and asked: “Do you guys sleep at night?”

The point of contention on that day was largely the Peabody peaker plant — a 55-megawatt gas-burning facility that would emit thousands of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from its smokestack. Referred to as Project 2015A, the plant has been in the works for more than five years, as its name suggests.

Climate change argument

At a time when the impacts of the climate crisis grow increasingly by the day, those against the project have said it’s foolish to build new fossil fuel infrastructure. That’s particularly true, they say, given the state’s new law requiring that Massachusetts cut carbon emissions in half by the end of the decade and go carbon-neutral by 2050.

“We see in this project one that is just going in the opposite direction of where our state and country needs to be going right now,” said Brita Lundberg, the chair of the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility board. “From an environmental justice point of view, from a health point of view, from a global climate point of view. It’s misguided, it’s unjust and it’s reckless.”

Her group has asked local health boards to call on the state for environmental and health assessments of the project, which they say haven’t been done. Supporters of the plant say it has received all necessary vetting, including air quality and health studies.

SHELD’s superintendent and other supporters of the project say the plant is much more efficient than other peaker plants it will be replacing, and that it is needed to ensure the reliability of the grid and the cost to ratepayers as a kind of stopgap measure as renewable energy production increases over the years.

“We are working on the same side — we are not in support of fossil fuel, we want to reduce emissions whenever we can,” said Sean Fitzgerald, SHELD’s superintendent.

An energy requirement

South Hadley has contracted for approximately 10% of the energy from the plant, joining around a dozen other municipal utilities including Holyoke, whose share of the project is far smaller. Holyoke has requested that its shares in the project be transferred to somebody else, however, because it no longer requires the energy from the plant, Holyoke Gas & Electric Manager James Lavelle told the Gazette.

“We just decided we can probably do better just trying to squeeze more capacity out of our own assets,” Lavelle said. Holyoke gets hydroelectric power from the Holyoke Dam and has invested in battery storage units. “I think if we were in South Hadley, we would be forced to look at Peabody more seriously … If we were situated a little differently with fewer assets under our belt, we would probably not be looking to get out of that or would be looking at a bigger chunk.”

Fitzgerald explained that a utility like SHELD has to not only acquire electricity for its residents’ everyday use, but has to also meet “capacity” obligations put in place by ISO New England. In other words, SHELD and others have to invest in enough energy-generating capacity to ensure that the region has enough generation in place to supply the region on days of peak demand — the hottest summer days and coldest winter days.

Capacity is the largest cost for any utility, Fitzgerald explained, and particularly for South Hadley. The town had to go out and purchase a whopping 68% of its capacity in the open market in 2017, for example, costing the $14 million company $9 million. And the capacity market is mostly made up of fossil fuel plants, he said. The Peabody plant, while it is gas-burning, will reduce emissions because of the less efficient plants it will replace, he added.

Fitzgerald contrasted that with the everyday energy that SHELD brings to South Hadley, which comes from two nuclear plants — Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut and Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire — as well as hydroelectric power from Canada.

“SHELD being 99% carbon free in our energy consumption, we’re part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Fitzgerald said.

Proponents of the Peabody plant say that it will only run around 240 hours per year, emitting 7,085 tons of carbon dioxide. But opponents say it could run much longer, emitting more greenhouse gas and pollutants than the developers suggest. And given its location near environmental justice neighborhoods that have faced disproportionate impacts from pollution, the plant’s detractors say it will hurt the health of vulnerable people.

Road ahead for plant

That was one of the issues that South Hadley’s Board of Health grappled with Tuesday. Members noted that Peabody’s own health board has already asked the state for an environmental impact report and comprehensive health impact assessment. South Hadley’s health board members decided to reach out to their counterparts in Peabody before deciding whether to make a similar request.

“I think it’s a value question — do we want to save our pennies for our little families in South Hadley at the demise of the families in Peabody?” board member Jessica Collins asked.

Board chair Johanna Ravenhurst noted that Fitzgerald said any delay to construction could significantly cost South Hadley ratepayers, also questioning whether the issue fell under the purview of the health board. Fitzgerald told the Gazette that if the project were scrapped altogether, it would cost South Hadley some $8 million.

For now, the project is slated to move ahead. In an August decision, the state’s Department of Public Utilities approved the request of the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co., which will own and run the plant, to bond for up to $170 million to fund its construction.

The fight against the plant is moving ahead, too. Speaking at the April 22 meeting of SHELD’s board, local public health physician Adele Franks said that the Peabody plant will harm short-term and long-term health. It matters little whether the plant is less polluting than other peakers, she said.

“We’re talking about incrementalism and we’re long past the time when incremental change can help us forestall climate disruption,” Franks said. “We’ve kicked this can down the road way too long.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when Massachusets law requires the state to meet its goal of being carbon neutral. Th e state’s climate change law requires that the state go carbon-neutral by 2050.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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