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The zombie coal plant

October 18, 2013

Environmentalists want to kill off Brayton Point. The Patrick administration says let the market do the dirty work.

brayton pointBOSTON – “Jay O’Hara didn’t have to see the gun to get spooked. The sound of the bullet hitting the chamber of a police officer’s rifle was enough. ‘I heard the bolt action of the rifle over my shoulder,’ O’Hara recalls. ‘It wasn’t pointed, but it’s locked and loaded. It’s an unmistakable, chilling sound.’

O’Hara, a 31-year-old Cape Cod resident, had expected the heat. He and a fellow climate change activist, Ken Ward, had just piloted a 30-foot lobster boat, the Henry David T., up to the mouth of the Taunton River, and dropped anchor next to the massive Brayton Point power plant. Somerset’s Brayton Point is the largest coal-fired power plant in New England. The men lay at anchor just off Brayton’s dock, sandwiched between the power plant’s massive dockside pile of coal, and a 689-foot freighter, the Energy Enterprise, looking to add 40,000 tons of coal to that pile.

coal is stupidThe pair sat in a boat named for Thoreau, the father of civil disobedience, flying a banner that read ‘Coal is stupid.’ For 10 hours, as the Coast Guard and armed Somerset police officers and the baffled crew of the Energy Enterprise looked on, the Henry David T.’s crew prevented the delivery of coal to a plant that had burned 1.2 million pounds of the stuff in the year prior. ‘It is our intention to remain moored here to ensure that this coal is not brought in and burned in New England,’ O’Hara radioed to the Energy Enter¬prise’s captain….
Old-line coal plants such as Brayton Point are zombies shuffling through the Massachusetts electric market. Three coal plants in Massachusetts and Connecticut have shut down since 2011, and three other plants (one in Holyoke, and two in New Hampshire) appear to be on shaky financial ground, thanks to the flood of cheap natural gas that’s hit the market in recent years. They’re the walking dead, groaning and rotting and less than fully alive. And, as Brayton Point shows, they can be surprisingly tough to kill off….

Environmental regulations carry compliance costs—especially for coal, an inherently dirty fuel. Tougher emissions standards aren’t game-changers on their own. But New England power plants have been facing stricter environmental regulations at a time when ample supplies of cheap domestic natural gas have turned the region’s electricity market upside down. According to data from the US Energy Information Administration, in 2008, gas-fired power plants in Massachusetts spent more than three times what coal plants spent on fuel to produce the same amount of energy; by 2010, the cost of natural gas had halved, while the cost of coal had risen slightly. Since gas-fired plants run far more cost-efficiently than coal-fired plants do, supplies of cheap natural gas have allowed gas-fired power plant operators to sell power more cheaply than rival coal plants. Coal, once the region’s dominant fuel, has been priced onto the sidelines.

‘You hear all this stuff about Obama’s war on coal, and it’s nonsense,’ says David Schlissel, a Belmont-based energy consultant. ‘It’s the economics of generating coal power. The real threat is gas, renewables, and energy efficiency all coming together. Throw it all in the hopper, and coal’s at risk.’

By Paul McMorrow, CommonWealth Magazine,  Fall 2013

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