Agreement to cut power plant discharge, send steam heat to Boston

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / February 2, 2011

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A Cambridge power plant will sharply reduce the harmful discharge of hot water into the Charles River and, in an innovative plan to be revealed today, generate steam instead that will be piped across the river to heat buildings in Boston.

The agreement, negotiated with the Environmental Protection Agency New England office and state regulators, calls for the GenOn Kendall Cogeneration Station to slice by 95 percent the 70 million gallons of heated water that can be pumped into the river every day. Environmentalists say the hot water kills fish and contributes to algal blooms.

By converting the hot water to steam and sending it to Boston — possibly via a pipe under the Longfellow Bridge — a liability becomes a marketable commodity for the power plant. The public would benefit, too.

EPA officials see it as one of the few cases where environmental harm is transformed into an environmental benefit, in this case heat that can help displace the need for additional greenhouse gas emissions.

They hope it will serve as a model for other communities.

“We need more solutions like this,’’ said Curt Spalding, chief of the New England EPA office. “This represents a serious-minded approach to restoring the health of the Charles, thinking about sustainability and how the community can benefit at the same time.’’

The agreement — which ends a six-year battle between the plant’s operators and environmentalists over its state and federal water discharge permits — comes as regulators and conservationists across the country begin to grapple with a long-overlooked problem at many power plants and industrial facilities. Enormous amounts of water, sucked in to cool equipment, can destroy fish eggs and larvae and later alter ecosystems when released back in to the waterway at warmer temperatures.

Under the agreement, the Kendall plant will reduce its intake of water and discharges to a maximum of 3.2 million gallons a day, an amount environmentalists and federal officials say will have a minimal effect on the Charles.

The pipe will be completed at the latest by 2016 — when reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge is scheduled to be finished — but it may be built far earlier. Veolia Energy North America, the company building the pipe, said it is looking at other options to get the steam across the river earlier, but did not disclose what they were. Without the pipe, the Kendall plant has no other way to reduce its water releases and would have had to consider closing.

Although it sits in the middle of a densely populated urban area near the Longfellow Bridge, the 1949-built Kendall power plant long operated in relative obscurity because it was turned on only during periods of high energy demand. But in 2003, it switched from oil to cleaner-burning natural gas, increased its power, and began operating more regularly, meaning that its practice of sucking in millions of gallons of water to cool equipment and discharging it into the river also ramped up.

Environmentalists complained during a permit review process starting around 2004, saying the water intake was destroying fish eggs, larvae, and other marine life, and the subsequent discharge of up-to-105-degree water was harming fish and was partially to blame for a toxic algal bloom.

Federal and state environmental officials issued a permit in 2006, which power plant officials appealed, saying it was too strict.

The advocacy groups Charles River Watershed Association and Conservation Law Foundation also appealed, saying the permit was too lenient.

But after long talks, power plant engineers came up with a creative solution: send steam to Boston for heat. The idea wasn’t new — the plant was sending some steam through another pipe to Boston to heat Massachusetts General Hospital and other buildings. But if another pipe could be built, they reasoned, they could convert even more steam.

“Kendall is unique because it is close to [where people need heat],’’ said Paige Kane, a spokeswoman for GenOn. She said the company will spend tens of millions of dollars to reconfigure the plant for the expanded steam generation effort. The new plan will result in a 13 to 15 percent overall increase in the plant’s energy efficiency, she said.

Veolia Energy, which provides heat for 14 of the 22 tallest buildings in Boston, much it from the Kendall Station, will build the pipe and purchase additional steam from the power plant.

“This project is part of a long-term vision and plan that we developed and shared with the City and the State,’’ Rowan Sanders, director of marketing and communications for Veolia, said in a statement.

Steam conversion is not always possible as a way to reduce hot-water discharges, because power plants may not have the capability to create steam heat or there may be no customers nearby to use it.

Brayton Point in Somerset, New England’s largest fossil fuel plant, is completing a cooling system with two giant towers to solve a decades-old problem of water intake and hot-water discharges that environmentalists say is largely responsible for a dead zone for winter flounder and other fish in Mt. Hope Bay.

Virtually everyone involved with the Charles River plan, from state environmental officials to GenOn, said the process was a win-win for everyone.

“[This solution] is the type of thing that makes you feel good,’’ said Peter Shelley, senior counsel of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Beth Daley can be reached at