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Six Reasons to Celebrate the Brayton Point Coal Plant Closing

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The Brayton Point coal plant is shutting down, and that’s a really positive development for a whole lot of reasons.

The new owners of the Somerset, MA, plant let it be known this week that they’d be shutting down Brayton Point by 2017. For the many community members and organizations that have worked for this goal for years, it’s a cause for celebration. But it’s also a great thing for the public at large.

(Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dippy_duck/)

Brayton Point in (somewhat) cheerier times [Credit: Mr. Ducke (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dippy_duck/)]

Closing Brayton Point means:

  1. Less carbon. Brayton Point is the largest coal plant in New England, and, until its recent decline, was the largest “point source” of carbon pollution in the region. If the electricity increasingly comes from zero-carbon resources like solar and wind instead, closing the plant avoids the millions of tons of CO2 that it used to emit each year.
  2. Less coal waste and other bad stuff. While burning coal is a major contributor to climate change, coal generation carries a lot of other environmental baggage, too. And despite big recent investments in pollution control systems, Brayton Point “still tops the list of sources of toxic releases”— mercury, arsenic, lead, and more — in Massachusetts.
  3. Healthier water. Brayton Point has been a subject of concern over many years not just because of its climate impacts, but also because of its direct water impacts. The plant added cooling towers recently to deal with the problems caused by withdrawing large quantities of water (close to a billion gallons per day in 2008, in Brayton’s case) and putting it back much hotter. But that still leaves the plant pulling in (and evaporating) millions of gallons per day. And there are also the water impacts of getting coal in the first place.
  4. More renewables. Taking a large polluting plant like Brayton Point off the rosters can create more of a market for new clean energy resources. In 2012, windpower — not coal, nuclear, or even natural gas — was the largest source of new capacity in the country. Renewables are well positioned to be a substantial part of the region’s energy picture.
  5. More transmission (without new transmission!). Transmission constraints have been an issue in Southeastern Massachusetts for a long time, and a challenge to adding new (clean) resources to serve Massachusetts and New England. Taking Brayton Point offline not only creates demand for renewables, it also makes more room in the grid for them. As it happens, that region is home to important projects that are looking to take advantage of the tremendous offshore wind resources near Cape Cod and south of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
  6. A stronger spotlight on the economics of coal. Brayton Point stands as a warning about the diminishing viability of coal in general. While others have pointed to the plant’s vulnerabilities, it was not one of the coal plants that UCS identified as “economically vulnerable” in its recent “Ripe for Retirement” analysis, based on the cost of power from a given power generator if it were upgraded with the necessary pollution control equipment. But Brayton Point serves as a strong example of the risks that UCS has been pointing to for years— i.e., the perils of investing good money into old plants, in ways that still don’t deal with the full range of problems. The “new wine in old wineskins” approach to energy infrastructure, this news reaffirms, just doesn’t cut it.

High on the list of considerations for the energy sector are (or should be) jobs. Direct losses because of decisions like this are important to note, and really hard to take when they’re hitting you directly. And it’s something UCS has focused on in a range of contexts, as in this recent forum on the future of West Virginia.

Credit: phault (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pjh)

A vision of the sunnier future [Credit: phault (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pjh)]

On that point, our analyses have repeatedly shown, a clean energy future isn’t just about improving the environment, strengthening energy security, enhancing fuel diversity, or increasing electricity cost control. Clean energy is also about generating more jobs. Strong renewable energy policies, we have shown, could lead to many more net jobs than the old-energy pathway. Along with dramatically improving local health, changes like the Brayton Point shutdown can create opportunities in the affected communities.

That potential is visible just 20 minutes east of Brayton Point, where the first-in-the-nation marine commerce terminal for supporting offshore wind is coming into shape in New Bedford.

A future worth celebrating

The challenge ahead, then, isn’t just to deal with the physical infrastructure — the buildings, the industrial residues, the 500-foot-tall cooling towers. It’s also to figure out how a community overcomes its dependence on a single corporate entity and the generations of employment it has provided.

That’s a piece of unfinished business for the owners of Brayton Point, Energy Capital Partners, as their CEO has acknowledged. As Sylvia Broude, executive director of Toxics Action Center, put it: “Somerset can be a model for other coal communities in New England to shift away from archaic dirty energy” and towards clean technology.

We can celebrate the many gains that Brayton Point’s closing brings. And celebrate even more when we’ve helped all communities move toward a brighter, cleaner energy future.

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming Tags: , , ,

About the author: John Rogers is a senior energy analyst with expertise in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and policies. He co-manages the Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3) at UCS that looks at water demands of energy production in the context of climate change. He holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan and a bachelor's degree from Princeton University. See John's full bio.

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  • http://biofry.wordpress.com/ Robert Bernal

    It is good to see fossil fueled plants shut down, but we had better come up with a LOT of clean energy to replace fossil fuels…
    You say that renewable energy is the way to go. I want that to be the case, but it’s NOT happening anytime soon.
    Please consider:
    Let’s imagine that by 2025, all the world is powered by renewables, that is industry, residential and transportation, but only when the wind blows and the sun shines. The average capacity factor is only about 22%. This means that about 5 times the capacity build up will be required AND a massive storage to store much of that (in order to realistically replace most all fossil fuels usage). Depending on the efficiency of that storage, we will need even MORE capacity build up.
    ONLY machine automation void of rapacious profiteering could ever implement the means for renewable energy to power planetary civilization (along with stiff CO2 taxation). Hundreds of THOUSANDS of square kilometers (along with even more conservation, efficiency and “lifestyle changes”) are the required footprint of such a grand renewable energy source (because my math was done with square miles!).

    You say “not to go nuclear”. I say that too, but only in the context of any old fashioned designs that mix water and solid fuels at the core (LWR, BWR, PWR, etc). Instead, we MUST go for the Molten Salt Reactor. Despite a decade or two for scale up, it can almost TOTALLY replace fossil fuels (without the need for fossil fueled back up, as with the renewables).

    Please research it (and LFTR). You should honestly be able to say that it is worth the re-development efforts and easier than dealing with the ten thousand fold increase in materials requirements for an all out renewables and storage deployment!

    Here is a link to MIT Technology Review…
    http://www.technologyreview.com/news/512321/safer-nuclear-power-at-half-the-price/
    Kirk Sorenson, a former NASA engineer, also promotes LFTR.

    Thank you for your consideration
    Robert Bernal – unlimited clean energy advocate

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/john-rogers.html John Rogers

      Thanks, Robert. Those are important issues — and worthy of blogposts of their own. But some brief thoughts:

      * Renewables penetration: As lots of news stories show, renewable energy is happening, and accelerating. And there’s plenty of scholarship that looks at what high levels of penetration would entail. Our Climate 2030 blueprint looked at what it would take to cut emissions by more than 50% by 2030 (en route to 80% reductions by 2050), including high levels of renewables. On the land use question, you can see (Figure 7.17, p. 156, and related text) a handy map of the U.S. showing the land use implications — both negative and positive (avoided surface mining or mountaintop removal, for example, from decreasing coal use).

      Other studies you might look at include the DOE 20% Wind Energy by 2030 report, and the 2012 Renewable Energy Futures report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The latter, for example, found that “Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.” My colleague Steve Clemmer nicely summarized the findings here.

      As you point out, energy efficiency and storage are pieces of the equation. But so are natural gas turbines, which can cost-effectively exist just to meet peak demands.

      * Nuclear: Actually, though we have our concerns, as you do, we don’t say, “Don’t go nuclear.” Our Nuclear Power homepage puts it this way: “Is UCS pro- or anti-nuclear power? The answer is ‘neither.’ We have been a watchdog for 40 years, working for safer nuclear plants, better regulatory oversight, and smarter policy.” Our position statement on nuclear power and global warming elaborates the issues nicely, as does so much of our work since then. And here’s a sample of what we’ve said about LFTR technology in particular.

      Overall, it’s clear that we can change the way we make and use energy, are changing it, and have the potential — and need — to change it much more quickly.

      Thanks.

  • http://www.railwayage.com Douglas John Bowen

    A billion gallons of water per day caught my attention; that’s nearly the equivalent of total daily use by New York City (which has reduced its water use from 1.4 billion not too long ago).

    Thank you for the roundup, or rundown. In the U.S. railroad world, talk of “declining” coal use verges on sacrilege, particularly for oldtimers wedded to “King Coal.” But it’s something the industry will need to address.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/john-rogers.html John Rogers

      You’re welcome, Douglas.

      Your idea of putting Brayton Point’s water use in perspective is a good one, and you’re right about the stats. We actually used New York City as an example in our 2010 mini-report “Energy-water collisions: 10 things you should know” (available via http://www.ucsusa.org/energy-water). Number 1 on the 10 things list was: “Keeping U.S. power on each day requires more water than 140 New York Cities.”

      One thing that we’re careful to point out in our reports is the distinction between water withdrawals — how much gets taken out of a given lake, river, or (in Brayton Point’s case) bay — and water consumption — how much gets evaporated in the cooling process, and doesn’t go back in. Either can have consequences, and the tradeoffs are worth considering.

      In Brayton Point’s case, the concern was around the impact of the withdrawals, and of the much higher-temperature water that the plant put back in. So a recirculating system — the cooling towers — made sense from that perspective… though they clearly didn’t improve the economics.

  • Richard

    Thanks for adding some perspective on issues related to coal generated electricity that I had not thought of/read about in other places. It IS a good thing that Brayton Point is closing for all the reasons you noted.

    I will pass this along to friends and family who are equally concerned about the future of electricity generation in our country and the world.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/john-rogers.html John Rogers

      Thanks for the kind words, Richard. The list of reasons why it’s good could be much longer than that, but six seemed like a good number. Thanks for spreading the word about these issues.

  • Betty Buckley

    I recently saw (but did not read) an article alleging that soot is important to our quality of life – as a filter I presume Do you have a position on that or are you studying it?

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/john-rogers.html John Rogers

      Thanks for your question, Betty. Soot (or black carbon, or BC) is indeed important to our quality of life, but in the other direction; I’d be hard-pressed to come up with someone saying good things — rooted in science — about soot (black carbon, or BC). Soot is a particularly acute health issue in developing countries, where many people burn biomass in open stoves, often in very confined space. But it’s also an important topic here at home.

      The U.S. EPA has a great series of webpages (http://www.epa.gov/blackcarbon) on the health and climate dimensions, including pieces such as this: “BC contributes to the adverse impacts on human health, ecosystems, and visibility associated with ambient fine particles (PM2.5). Short-term and long-term exposures to PM2.5 are associated with a broad range of human health impacts, including respiratory and cardiovascular effects as well as premature death.”

      UCS talked about the issue earlier this year in response to the EPA decision to tighten the “soot standard”: http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/got-science/2013/got-science-february-2013.html.

      The understanding of the perils of black carbon is even bipartisan: In 2009, Republican Senator Inhofe (OK) joined with Democratic Senators Carper (DE), Boxer (CA), and Kerry (MA) to introduce a bill to address it.

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