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SALEM

Study to focus on future of plant

Old coal facility ‘at a crossroads’

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / April 11, 2010

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As the Salem Harbor Power Station nears its 60th year, the city has launched an effort to assess the plant’s future and potential uses of the site were it to close.

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center recently awarded Salem $200,000 to fund a yearlong feasibility study, which a consultant will undertake with input from an advisory committee.

The city is preparing a request for proposals from interested consultants that it expects to issue shortly, according to Jason Silva, chief of staff to Mayor Kimberley L. Driscoll.

“So much of our economic vitality is tied in many ways to what happens on that particular site,’’ Driscoll said. “It’s our number one taxpayer and a large part of the job composition in our community. So we want to have a better handle on what the short- and long-term future of the site is.’’

City officials said the study will examine whether or not and for how long the power plant can continue within the current economic and regulatory environment, what facility upgrades are required and planned, and the need for the power generated at the plant.

Also to be looked at is what kind of environmental cleanup would be needed to prepare the site for future uses if the plant closed, and what those uses might be.

Driscoll said one impetus for the study to be undertaken now is that the city and the plant’s current owner, Virginia-based Dominion, are approaching the third year of a three-year tax agreement.

Under the pact, Dominion is paying the city $4.75 million a year, $3 million of that in property taxes, and the remainder a host fee.

Salem Harbor Power Station, which began operation in 1951, is on a 65-acre site. The plant generates about 745 megawatts, enough electricity to power about 745,000 homes. Three of its generating units are coal-fired and one oil-fired, according to Dominion’s website.

Driscoll said the city supports the plant’s continuation in Salem and fully expects Dominion to be a participant in the study.

“This is not a hostile effort. It’s really aimed at giving the city information it needs to adequately plan for the future,’’ she said.

Dominion spokesman Dan Genest said the company is aware of the study and “it is our intention to be a partner in the study and to cooperate. We feel that the study will show what we all know, and that is that the Salem Harbor Power Station has been a longtime partner in the economic success of Salem, and the best use for this property has been and will be the long-term operation of the power station.’’

Asked if the company had any plans to close the plant, Genest said, “What we have said all along since we took ownership of the power station in 2005 is that we intend to continue to operate Salem Harbor Power Station so long as we can do it economically, safely, reliably, and in compliance with all state and federal regulations.’’

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is a quasi-public agency created by the state in 2008 as a result of the Green Jobs Act to promote job growth and economic development in the state’s clean energy industry.

Robert Keough, spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environment Affairs, said the Salem study makes sense.

“The Salem Harbor plant is an old coal-fired plant that without a major overhaul is clearly near the end of its useful life,’’ he said. Such plants “are at a crossroads as we look toward a future of lower carbon emissions.’’

Keough said his agency and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center — which are both helping Salem prepare a scope of its upcoming study — “have an interest in exploring alternatives to coal-fired generation at that site and certainly the city has much at stake in the future of this power plant. The city is showing some real foresight to look ahead and to think about what it will take to keep that site productive from the city’s point of view.’’

Pat Gozemba, cochairwoman of Salem Alliance for the Environment, said she is delighted the city is going to undertake the study, and that the state is paying for it.

“It’s big progress for the city and something we’ve been agitating for for some time,’’ said Gozemba, whose group — along with HealthLink, another local organization on whose board she sits — has long been pushing for greater efforts to reduce emissions from the plant.

Gozemba said SAFE’s ultimate goal regarding the power plant site is “to ensure that whatever is there — whether it’s a power plant or some other entity — is compatible with the economic interests of the city and the health of the city as well.’’

The study comes as the Conservation Law Foundation is preparing to file a federal lawsuit against Dominion for allegedly violating smokestack emission limits at the Salem Harbor plant. The foundation issued a 60-day notice to Dominion on Jan. 27 of its intent to sue. That period has passed and the foundation is now planning to proceed with the suit at a date not yet set, said Shanna Cleveland, an attorney with the group.

Cleveland called Salem’s planned study “a great idea. We ought to be doing these studies for all the coal-fired plants in Massachusetts, because we need to replace coal here, and there is so much potential for renewable energy in Massachusetts.’’

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