This week’s new climate report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is very clear that the world needs to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure immediately. In fact, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, countries need to actively decommission a lot of the oil, gas and coal infrastructure that already exists.
Massachusetts also has strong climate laws and has committed to hitting “net zero” emissions by 2050. So why, in 2022, is the state allowing the construction of a new natural gas and diesel-fired power plant in Peabody?
Project opponents say plans for the so-called "peaker" plant are antithetical to the state's goals, and that the utility group behind the project has not been transparent in their proceedings.
But work on the plant has continued despite the protests, and project managers say the facility will be up and running by 2023.
Whether you’re familiar with this proposed power plant and have questions, or you’re hearing about it for the first time, here’s what you need to know:
What is a “peaker” plant?
A "peaker" plant is a facility that only turns on during times of peak electricity demand. They tend to operate a few hundred hours a year, and often are older, more polluting facilities.
Peaker plants operate in a different energy market than the traditional power plants that produce the bulk of the electricity used in New England. Those power facilities — like the Mystic Generating Station or Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant — get paid by the grid operator, ISO New England, for the electricity they produce.
Peaker plants, by contrast, make most of their money by being “on call,” ready to fire up and feed electricity into the grid with minimal notice when demand is highest.
What is the Peabody peaker plant?
Technically called Project 2015A, the Peabody peaker plant is a proposed 55 megawatt natural gas and diesel fuel-burning power plant.
The plant, which will cost about $85 million to build, will sit on a small plot of land near two existing gas and oil-fired peaking power plants.
The new facility will have a 90-foot smoke stack equipped with the latest in sound and air pollution mitigation technologies, making it quieter and cleaner than the other two plants. It will use existing gas pipelines and electrical substation infrastructure, but it will require a small gas compressor on site.
When it runs, it will primarily burn natural gas. But it will have the ability to switch to low-sulfur diesel fuel should gas become unavailable.
The Peabody peaker is permitted to run a maximum of 1,250 hours annually, but will probably operate much less than that. It’s hard to predict exactly how often ISO New England will ask to turn it on, but the utility behind the plant estimates it will run about 239 hours per year during the next few years, and then slowly decrease after that as battery technology improves and Massachusetts laws limiting greenhouse gas emissions kick in.
With a 55-megawatt output, the plant did not require a full environmental review, though opponents have asked the state for one.
Who is building this plant?
The Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, better known as MMWEC (pronounced EM-wick) is a nonprofit quasi-state agency that works on behalf of 20 municipal utilities. Often called municipal light plants or “munis,” these small utilities serve specific towns or cities. Unlike larger investor-owned utilities like National Grid or Eversource, munis don’t need to generate a profit, and they can own and operate the power plants that generate electricity for their customers.
Who opposes the project?
In the last few years, a broad coalition of environmentalists, public health officials, local residents and elected officials have come out against the peaker plant.
Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren say they oppose the construction of any new fossil fuel plants, and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has repeatedly raised concerns about air quality, environmental justice and the lack of community input.
Many local politicians and state legislators have also come out against it.
Breathe Clean North Shore, Massachusetts Climate Action Network, Community Action Works, 350Mass, the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, GreenRoots, Extinction Rebellion and many other environmental groups oppose the plant, too.
Why do people oppose the peaker plant?
Those against the project cite several reasons for their opposition. Here are the big ones:
1. Climate change
Even though this plant will be equipped with the latest emissions-trapping technology, burning natural gas and oil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to our climate problems. The plant is technically permitted to emit up to 51,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, but MMWEC officials say it will probably emit about 7,085 tons per year (For context, driving a car about 2,500 miles emits a ton of C02).
Natural gas production and transportation also releases methane, which traps even more heat in the atmosphere than C02.
2. Air quality and public health
Burning natural gas and oil releases fine particulate matter and other pollutants that are harmful to human health.
There are many well-documented health concerns associated with fossil fuel-burning power plants," the Peabody Board of Health wrote in a letter sent last year. "Emissions such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other hazardous pollutants can contribute to cancer risk, birth defects, and harm to the nervous system and brain. Emissions of particulates increase risk of heart disease, lung cancer, COPD, and asthma.”
In a different letter about the project, the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility put it more bluntly: the project “can be expected to increase mortality rates in the surrounding communities.”
The physicians group, the Peabody Board of Health and others have asked Gov. Charlie Baker's office for a health impact study like the one ordered for the Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Station, though no study has been done.
3. Environmental justice
The project site, which already houses two oil and gas-fired peaker plants, is located near several schools and daycare centers, the New England Homes for the Deaf, a senior living facility and a hospital.
Historically, high-polluting infrastructure has been disproportionately sited near lower income, non-white and otherwise vulnerable populations. To help stop this cycle, Massachusetts codified strong environmental justice language and rules into law last year. Project opponents often point out that if the plant were being proposed today, it would be subject to much greater state scrutiny because it's inside an environmental justice zone.
MMWEC officials say they met all of the necessary public notification requirements. And documents show that in 2016, it posted the project plan in state’s environmental monitor and placed an ad in a local newspaper.
But many who live in Peabody or other nearby towns say just doing the minimum of what's required isn't sufficient. There were no public meetings or other community outreach efforts about the project, and when it was discussed during MMWEC meetings, it was usually listed on the agenda as “Project 2015A.”
“This is a lot of the reason why it took so long for people in Peabody to realize this was going on,” says Logan Malik of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network. The term 2015A “doesn’t tell you that we’re about to build a brand new natural gas and oil-fired power plant in your community.”
MMWEC did eventually hold a public meeting in Peabody about the project in June 2021 after an upwelling of public outcry convinced the utility group to put the project on hold for 60 days and reassess its merits.
Susan Smoller, a Peabody resident and cofounder of Breathe Clean North Shore, says the meeting was a start, but she was frustrated that people had to sit through a two-hour presentation before getting to speak. Many people left by that point, she says.
No other public meetings about the project have been scheduled in nearby or participating communities.
Why does MMWEC say the project is needed? And why build it in Peabody?
At the public meeting last summer, MMWEC CEO Ronald DeCurzio gave four reasons to build the plant:
Municipal utilities, like investor-owned utilities, are required to buy a certain amount of “capacity” or “on call” power for their customers so that the lights won’t go out and prices won’t spike if electricity demand rises. Munis can buy this capacity on the free market or they can own peaker plants.
Building a peaker plant would save ratepayers money in the long-run because there’s a lot of price volatility in the capacity market, DeCurzio said.
Were it to abandon the plan, MMWEC says it would lose $31 million, both in sunk costs and contractual obligations.
With two operational peaker plants already on the property, the supporting infrastructure the new plant would need — like gas pipelines and an electrical substation — already exist. Not having to build that will save a lot of time and money.
DeCurizo and several other MMWEC officials repeatedly argued that this plant will displace older and dirtier peaker plants, like the other two on the property. But when pressed, they conceded that there are no official plans to decommission either of those facilities. (A spokesperson for the grid operator, ISO New England, says it decides which peaker plants to turn on first based on the cost of the electricity they produce, not their carbon emissions.)
MMWEC also intends to eventually run the plant on a mix of natural gas and hydrogen, which could have climate benefits. But it may be several years before this could happen.
4. Reliable electricity
Northeast Massachusetts has “capacity constraints,” making it more susceptible to brownouts during hot summer days or cold snaps.
MMWEC says building a peaking facility in the area could help prevent this from happening.
What's the alternative to this plant?
Opponents insist MMWEC could meet its energy needs and spend less money if it built a battery storage system on the site or just bought on-call power on the free market. They point to two reports they commissioned to support their claims.
The first, which looked at batteries, concluded “that energy storage is not only a viable replacement option,” but could “result in emissions and cost savings.”
The second, which examined buying on-call power instead of building a plant, found that the latter option would save ratepayers money for the first 15 years of the plant's expected 30-year life. After that, the authors wrote, the benefit declines, but it's hard to predict market prices that far into the future.
MMWEC officials say they consulted five battery providers who told them that the site is too small for the array they’d need. And even if space weren’t an issue, installing batteries would be more expensive than the current proposal.
They also maintain that building the plant will save money.
Where does the project stand now?
The Peabody Peaker plant is fully permitted and MMWEC recently received permission from the state’s Department of Public Utilities to issue up to $170 million in bonds to finance construction.
Documents filed by MMWEC say the plant will be fully operational by June 2023.
Project opponents say they are still committed to trying to stop this project. In addition to pushing the Baker administration to do community health assessment, they’re hoping that the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Kathleen Theoharides, “reopens” the environmental review process and orders a full impact study.
They say Theoharides has the legal authority to do this, and should, given the lack of public awareness the first time around and the new environmental justice provisions signed into law last year. A spokesperson from her office said she can only order a new review if there has been a substantial change to the project.
Smoller of Breathe Clean North Shore says that if this avenue doesn't pan out, she and others will continue will continue to fight.
“I have come to see this not as a Peabody issue, but as a state issue,” she says. “It’s crazy, it’s insane, to be investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure in 2022.”
This segment aired on April 8, 2022.