Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Op-ed in Daily Hampshire Gazette
Plea to coal plant: Burn gas, not coal
by Peter Vickery & Dick Stein
Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, January 5, page c1
News of the planned closing of the Salem Harbor coal-fired power station has leaked out. Could something similar happen to the coal-burning power station at Mount Tom in Holyoke, on the upper Valley’s doorstep?
Tighter regulations and rising prices are pushing power companies away from coal, so almost every week somewhere in America a coal-plant is shutting down. If the company that owns Mount Tom (GDF Suez) follows the national trend, the plant’s days may be numbered. Because of the damage coal does to children’s lungs and the impact it has on the climate, some people might rejoice.
But we would certainly not be among them, much as we want to see a speedy transition from coal to cleaner energy. Why not? Because in addition to electricity, Mount Tom generates some real and much-needed benefits for Holyoke, benefits like jobs and taxes. Last year, the City of Holyoke took in almost $2 million from the plant, which provides employment for more than 50 local people. If the jobs and taxes disappeared, Holyoke would suffer, and neighboring communities would feel the knock-on effects.
We need to keep Mount Tom open, minus the coal. Moving from coal to renewable energy is an urgent priority. Climate change is starting to bite – the outgoing year, 2010, was the second hottest since records began – and coal makes up about one-third of our country’s output of the main cause of human-made climate change, CO2. So we can get serious about tackling climate change, or we can carry on burning coal; but we can’t do both.
Can we move Mount Tom away from coal while protecting existing jobs, creating new ones, and keeping those tax dollars flowing for Holyoke? Fortunately, the answer is yes we can. One option is to repower Mount Tom from coal to natural gas. Although natural gas is a fossil fuel, it emits much less carbon dioxide than coal, which is why some states (like Minnesota and Colorado) are requiring utilities to switch from coal to natural gas.
At this point, unfortunately, wind and solar energy are not by themselves feasible substitutes for coal at Mount Tom. It would take many more wind turbines than the landscape has room for – or about 300 football-fields worth of solar panels – to generate 146 MW of electricity. But with natural gas, Mount Tom could produce three times as much electricity as it produces now and at a fraction of the carbon cost. With higher profits from increased sales, GDF Suez could afford to absorb the upfront expense of repowering the plant. By the way, this is a company that is investing $2 billion (yes, billion) in a coastal wind park off northern France.
Natural gas could be an interim stage in the process of moving Mount Tom away from coal, a stepping stone on the path to 100% renewable energy. There are downsides, certainly. Getting natural gas out from underground through the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short, can contaminate drinking water. Crazily, in 2005 Congress exempted fracking from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But instead of waiting for Congress to come to its senses and reverse itself, Colorado has also moved to close the loophole and written its own regulations to keep drinking water safe from the side-effects of fracking.
Natural gas is by no means a perfect solution. But as a stop-gap measure, it has merit so long as we follow Colorado’s example and ensure that the gas companies extract it responsibly and safely. This step-by-step approach, using natural gas as a bridge from coal to renewable energy, could create hundreds of jobs, both in the construction and green-tech sectors. Just expanding the gas pipeline (currently operating at full capacity) would involve new jobs. Refitting and reconfiguring the site, replacing the coal boilers with high-efficiency gas turbines, would involve hundreds more.
Is it practical to repower a coal-fired plant to natural gas? Yes, it’s happening not just in Colorado and Minnesota but much closer to home. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, repowered from coal to natural gas and now boasts a system that doesn’t waste energy the way a coal boiler does. When a power station burns coal, only some of the energy goes toward making electricity. The rest gets wasted. In contrast, UMass now uses that energy to heat offices, classrooms, and dorms across the campus.
Unemployment is high and the climate crisis is deepening, but we can do something very practical to meet those challenges right here in the Pioneer Valley by taking the UMass example and scaling it. Repowering Mount Tom from coal to cleaner energy would protect existing jobs, create new ones, maintain Holyoke’s tax revenue, and help get the climate back in balance. Good news for Holyoke and the surrounding communities; good news for GDF Suez; and good news for our climate. That’s not just a win-win solution. It’s a win-win-win.
To make it happen, our elected officials need to engage GDF Suez in dialog, and it is up to active citizens to nudge them.
In the coming months, we look forward to a grassroots coalition of community organizations joining together to get our political leaders and GDF Suez talking to each other about a clean-energy, green-jobs future for Mount Tom. Let’s not wait for any nasty surprises.