Monday, April 8, 2013

Out of the frying pan, etc.

Goodbye coal, and hello natural gas. Consistent with a nationwide trend, the Pioneer Valley looks set to replace one fossil-fueled power station with another. GDF Suez's coal-burning plant at Mount Tom in Holyoke seems poised to close in the next few years, by which point a 400 megawatt natural-gas-fired facility will have come online 15 miles to the southwest in Westfield.

When GDF Suez finally stops burning coal at Mount Tom, we will all breathe more easily (literally). But there are two reasons to hold in that sigh of relief for the time being: water and the climate. A new natural-gas plant would have big implications for drinking water in the area. And it would do nothing to reduce the state's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while increasing our dependence on fracking.

The company proposing the Westfield power station -- Pioneer Valley Energy Center -- expects that the new plant's cooling towers will need up to two million gallons of water per day. Where will it find all that water? From the Tighe-Carmody Reservoir in Southampton, which is owned and operated by the City of Holyoke. How much wastewater will the plant expel? About a quarter of a million gallons per day.

To put those amounts in context, the average family in the U.S. uses about 300 gallons of water per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So every day of the week, the new power station would withdraw as much water as 6,600 families would use and discharge enough to account for about 800 families. In addition to wasting water, building yet another gas-fired plant will exacerbate the climate crisis.

About half of the electricity we generate in Massachusetts comes from natural gas, and because we don't extract it here (not yet, anyway) the power companies have to pipe it in from other parts of the country and Canada. For an overview of the pipeline network click here. Over the next 25 years or so, the Energy Information Administration is projecting that a steadily increasing proportion of our natural gas will come from shale formations. Extracting natural gas from shale requires hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

So what is the alternative to the Westfield gas-fired plant? One option is to keep generating energy at Mount Tom: clean energy.

Saying goodbye to coal should not mean bidding farewell to GDF Suez. If we can keep the company here, we will have a unique opportunity to transform Mount Tom site into a showcase for renewable-energy innovation. At a recent public meeting in Holyoke, Senator Michael Knapik said his legislative task force would welcome ideas to present to GDF Suez. Spending some of the company's €231 million research-and-innovation budget in the Pioneer Valley would be a good start. Located on the Connecticut River, surrounded by farmland, and in the heart of the Five College Area, the Mount Tom site would make an ideal home for a renewable-energy research facility focusing on hydro power, micro-hydro, and anaerobic digestion.  

Thanks to the current pause in global temperature rises, policymakers in Massachusetts and across the world may have just enough time to make the changes necessary to stave off climate catastrophe. But if we replace the coal-burning plant at Mount Tom with a gas-fired plant in Westfield, our regional CO2e emissions will remain constant or even rise while our methane emissions will increase. Electricity users in the Pioneer Valley may no longer feel quite so complicit in the disregard that Colombian mine-owners show for the lives of the miners who dig the coal (see blog post January 26, 2011); instead we can shoulder more responsibility for the fracking that makes projects like Westfield economically feasible. 

A group called Westfield Concerned Citizens has been leading the fight against the new gas-fired plant. On Thursday, May 23, at 7:00 p.m., they and local Greens are hosting a public meeting at the Westfield Athenaeum to rally opposition and present practical, clean-energy alternatives including solar, net-metering, and opting in to the Green Communities Act. So if you live in Western Massachusetts, please mark your calendar and come along.

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