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Options at power plant site reviewed

By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / October 9, 2011

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Many environmentalists cheered last spring when the owners of the coal-burning Salem Power Station announced that the site was too costly to operate and said it would close the plant in 2014.

Some thought the 62-acre site would make a great location for wind turbines or solar panels. And while those options were included in an assessment study prepared by consultants working for the city, the report pointed to a natural gas plant as one of the most viable redevelopment options.

“For us, it’s something that we’d be open to,’’ Mayor Kim Driscoll told about 100 people at a public meeting in Salem Tuesday night. The meeting was led by four consulting companies that were commissioned nine months ago to prepare a state-subsidized $200,000 report to assess the redevelopment prospects for the power plant site.

While the consultants from Jacobs, Sasaki Associates, La Capra Associates, and Robert Charles Lesser & Co. are expected to release a final report later this month, their preliminary findings show that a natural gas plant, along with light industrial and manufacturing plants and a new marine terminal that would include a port for cruise ships, could bring in $3.6 million in tax revenue each year. That was the best economic scenario presented by the consultants. Even if it was implemented, the plan would still fall short of the $4.75 million annually paid by Dominion, the current power plant owner and the city’s largest taxpayer.

Consultants say a natural gas plant could match the current plant’s output of 750 megawatts and operate on just 10 acres. That would far exceed putting wind and solar renewable energy systems on the site, which combined could produce 21 megawatts.

Also, Dominion could be preparing to sell the plant to a company that uses alternative fuels. Dan Genest, a Dominion spokesman, said several parties have expressed interest in the property but he declined to offer more details.

Since Dominion owns the land, it will have the final say on how it is redeveloped. Driscoll said the energy giant is cooperating with the city, and has allowed the consultants to study the property. It also has agreed to be part of a working group that will include Driscoll, Salem state Representative John Keenan, state Senator Frederick E. Berry, and Attorney General Martha Coakley.

During the meeting, Driscoll said she would support a multiuse project that would include a natural gas plant and a cruise ship terminal. She stressed that the project would take years to take shape, and would be implemented in phases.

Besides third-party ownership, consultants say other redevelopment challenges include finding an economic formula that will match the property’s current $4.75 million tax revenue. Also, any new owners will be responsible for cleaning up the site, which could cost as much as $85 million.

At the meeting, several people voiced their objections to a natural gas power plant and a cruise terminal.

Pat Gozemba, who lives in Salem Willows near the Dominion plant, said she was tired of paying to subsidize fossil fuel plants.

“We’ve underwritten Dominion for years, I don’t want to underwrite another private company,’’ she said.

Linda Haley, who also lives near the power plant said she believes the city should lobby to attract a marine research center instead of cruise ships.

“I’m concerned we will replace what we have now with something bad or worse,’’ she said.

Tom Furey, a Salem city councilor, called it a historic opportunity to clean up one of the premiere coastal parcels along the North Shore. Furey said he envisions a redeveloped site that mixes commercial, retail, and manufacturing. Still, the property’s future depends on what Dominion decides to do.

“They’re the power broker and we can’t tell them what to do,’’ he said.

Globe correspondent Justin A. Rice contributed to this story. Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at