Plans for Salem’s Harbor Power Station: Realpolitik or Missed Opportunity?

July 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm | In cities, green, health, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, leadership, NIMBYism, politics, power_grid, real_estate, resources, silo_think | Comments Off on Plans for Salem’s Harbor Power Station: Realpolitik or Missed Opportunity?

Last year, when I was still in Victoria BC but considering a move back to Boston’s North Shore, I read about the impending closure of the Salem Harbor Power Station and immediately thought,”Wow, what a fantastic redevelopment opportunity!” Suffice to say that my optimism may have been premature.

Bedeviled by a Dirtball

The Salem Harbor Power Station is one of the region’s dirtiest coal- and oil-burning power generators. For six decades, the plant has occupied sixty-two acres of prime waterfront real estate, cutting residents off from all other historically and economically significant maritime uses on shore. Its hulking facility, topped by two smokestacks that pierce the skyline, has visually dominated the coastline not only for its Salem neighbors, but also for folks in Beverly and Marblehead.

(Photo, above, from Dominion’s website)

Zombie Infrastructure

And it has spewed tons of pollutants into the air. As the Denver Post put it in an article about these many long-in-the-tooth dirty power plants, “Utilities dragged feet”:

These plants have been allowed to run for decades without modern pollution controls because it was thought that they were on the verge of being shuttered by the utilities that own them. But that didn’t happen.

Indeed. The Salem station was one of those zombie economy necessities that refused to die: a lot of people shrugged and accepted it as an unavoidable evil that had to be borne. After all, the region is famous for being bedeviled, right? The struggle to force either a clean-up or a closure of the Salem station was epic – but now it’s finally happening.

Or is it?

There’s a dearth of information about how the situation went from “the plant is closing” = “really new opportunities” to “the plant is dead” = “long live the plant,” but some weeks ago, the latter option grew in strength when the station’s current owner, Dominion, began negotiations to sell the property as-is to New Jersey-based startup Footprint Power. The latter wants to operate a natural gas-burning power plant at the site. Admittedly, natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil – but wait! There have been hints that the backup fuel could be …diesel oil. Because, you know, depending on the markets, natural gas might become too expensive and we’d have to go back to something a little dirtier.

It seems zombies are hard to kill dead.

Why has there been no recent public input on the plans?

On June 26, Andrea Fox of Green Drinks of Greater Salem moderated a discussion of current plans for the station. The three presenters – Healthlink‘s Jane Bright, State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, and attorney Jan Schlichtmann (whose work has often focused on environmental issues) – questioned the plans now on offer. Schlichtmann in particular pointed out that, while there was a surge of interest initially in what would happen to the site, the recent negotiations between Dominion, Footprint, and Massachusetts politicians have effectively put a kibosh on any further public input. The Green Drinks discussion was essentially meant to breathe some life into the conversation. It seems that as soon as the corporation(s) decided on a course of action, the people rolled over and went quiet.

The lone voice speaking in favor of Footprint Power’s plan was Shelley Alpern, a Salem resident and member of SAFE – the Salem Alliance for the Environment (but she made it clear that she wasn’t speaking on SAFE’s behalf). Alpern’s cred as an environmentalist goes way back, so it was surprising to hear her question the vision for a sustainable redeveloped waterfront site and instead pleading Footprint’s case.

The arguments at Green Drinks revolved around the following:

  • how much will it really cost to clean up the brownfield site? Some put the price tag at $75m, others argue that this number is inflated and meant to scare people into accepting Footprint’s option, lest the alternative be “the padlock” (meaning the site just gets shuttered and turns into a decaying eyesore versus a toxic waste spewing eyesore). See also Speaking alternatives to power
  • is the lifecycle of natural gas really that much better than coal or oil? Sure, it’s cleaner (somewhat) and currently cheaper (somewhat), but no one knows how the markets are going to shape prices in the future, near or far. And what about the externalities and costs consumer don’t directly see when the natural gas is extracted, such as the enormous environmental cost of fracking? What about the dangers of putting pipelines, which will inevitably break down and leak, through watershed areas? There are already pipelines running from Nova Scotia in Canada, through Beverly, and into Salem. What’s their “lifecycle”?
  • will Footprint Power keep its promises? Some stakeholders have been told by Footprint that a natural gas-burning plant might need to use diesel fuel as a back-up; some were told that the existing plant might have to stay on for some time (vs being dismantled). Other stakeholders have heard no such thing when they sat down with Footprint – but we’re dealing with corporations, and with energy corporations, to boot …not exactly always the white-hat guys.
  • what of the missed opportunities to develop something truly amazing?

That last point – missing opportunities because vision is lacking – strikes me as the most compelling. Rep. Ehrlich made the case in a Marblehead Reporter op-ed on May 14, 2012, Vision still lacking at Salem power-plant site (also available on her website, here). The column sparked a flaming letter-to-the-editor in response, Get over the aesthetics; think clean energy, whose author compared opposition to off-shore (and backyard) wind turbines to a kind of la-la-land NIMBYism that wants a “pretty” picture without facing the inescapable reality of our energy needs. His point was that Ehrlich and those who think like her are in la-la-land because we pussy-foot around the fact that we still need to get our energy from somewhere, while he is a realist who understands that Footprint’s proposal is the region’s best bet.

I think it’s a false choice.

Macro / Micro

Consider for a moment perspective. What the critics, especially Ehrlich and Schlichtmann, have is a fine-grained, close-view perspective. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs‘s analysis of neighborhoods at the street level. She looked at the details and decoded what she termed a street ballet, understanding that how people use a thing (a street) – and how they are able to use it – determines the whole, irrespective of how much planning-from-above tries to predict outcomes. This was pretty much in opposition (at the time) to the thinking of professional planners, who believed that streets must be rationally planned (preferably according to the needs of the automobile) and that buildings, placed according to mostly “ideal” reasons, would determine uses. If Jacobs had a micro view, the planners of the day had the macro view.

It strikes me as ironic that the micro-view is actually the Big Picture “vision” view, and that the macro approach, which tries to account for a larger perspective, has a blind spot about the “users” or people on the ground. The Realpolitik view defaults to the macro – and I count Alpern’s approach here. Expert knowledge about hydro-fracking regulations in Bulgaria and Pennsylvania is good to have, but it’s not enough to impel local people to act differently. Local inertia is a strong force, and if you build another power plant, you will have another power plant. For another sixty years. But if you give the people who actually want change the power to control their destinies, they can move the rest of us out of our inertia. That’s the claim mocked by the letter writer who thinks a power plant alternative is la-la-land thinking – but what is the alternative? Another planned-from-above mega-project that repeats many of the same patterns established by the old project?

Deep waters, old uses

Schlichtmann made the truly relevant point that Salem’s history was built on maritime industry. The current site of the Salem Harbor Power Station is Salem’s only deep-water port – what passes for the city’s tourist harbor is a shallow pond, incapable of harboring bigger vessels. The original coal-burning plant was built on that prime spot because of the deep harbor, which allowed ships to offload coal. It’s an incredibly shortsighted move willfully to dismiss an opportunity to reclaim that harbor for what it represents (Salem’s fantastic seafaring history). All around the industrialized world, cities are reclaiming waterfront that was savaged by mono-uses (waterfront freeways, power plants, factories, etc.), and reintegrating them into a more sustainable urban fabric. Why should Salem shut itself out from that renaissance?

Well, because we need energy. But consider this: ISO New England has said that there’s no longer any need for a power plant in Salem. As Ehrlich noted in her column, “The old plant is barely running, and ISO, the region’s reliability-cautious grid operator, said that power production on that site is no longer needed. Why such an enormous plant?”

More references

For more images of the Salem Harbor Power Station, see Healthlink‘s photostream, here.

For an informative PDF, see Repurposed Coal Plant Sites Empower and Revive Communities.

Sierra Club, Victory! Salem Coal Plant Announces Closing.

ArchBOSTON forum discussion (brief) here.

It’s expensive.

March 16, 2011 at 10:47 pm | In green, power_grid | Comments Off on It’s expensive.

It’s expensive – whether we’re talking money or resources. There’s no “free” energy, sadly. I’m referring to the question of how we’re going to proceed on the question of nuclear power in the wake of the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan.

Earlier today I read about Iowa’s nuclear problem. Let’s talk money. From the article:

MidAmercian Energy wants to explore the possibility of constructing a nuclear power plant in Iowa. They want their utility customers to pay higher rates to pay for engineering studies necessary for the plant, which may not even get built.

Historically, when a utility wants to add new generating capacity it must build the plant and begin producing electricity before seeking to recover the costs from its customers. They can only recover costs that are reasonable and prudent.

Last year, the Iowa legislature considered cost recovery legislation that had a provision empowering the Public Utility Board to require competitive bidding for new electricity resources. Under that approach, only if nuclear is cheaper can the project proceed, but MidAmerican knows nuclear is much more costly than efficiency, natural gas or wind, so this year’s bill drops that language.

We argued against this measure last year. This year’s measure is worse.

The shareholders, the ones that will benefit from increased profits, should take on the risks and expenses related to this project, not the captive customers.

It seems unreasonable to argue with the Daily Sentinel’s reasonable argument. But you can bet that there will be plenty of argument and shifting around of responsibility, because nuclear power plants are incredibly expensive to build.

Forget about the problem of radiation leakage in the event of an accident. Just on the basis of expenditure, maintenance, and upkeep, nuclear has a huge financial drawback.

Take a look at Do We Really Need Nuclear Power? (subtitled “After Japan, everyone’s asking the question—and the answer is more complicated than you think”) by Bradford Plumer.

The pro-nuclear power argument, as rhetorically laid out by Plumer, goes something like this:

…nuclear power carries some risks, but those aren’t nearly as great as the risks of burning coal, cooking the planet, and sending all sorts of deadly pollutants into the air. Air pollution kills two million people per year and much of that is due to fossil-fuel combustion. The right answer is to learn from Japan’s mistakes and improve nuclear safety. (It’s also worth noting that the next generation of reactors are supposed to be even safer.) No energy source is risk-free, and nuclear is one of our best bets. Right?

That’s compelling – if you count up deaths, then you might conclude that nuclear is safer. Surely, it’s not killing 2 million people annually.

But as Plumer goes on to illustrate, the financial calculations are a different matter. The US, for example, gets 20% of its energy needs from nuclear and has 104 plants. (I did not know this; it’s a substantial number of nuclear plants and a substantial percentage of power.) What’s standing in the way of nuclear power plant expansion isn’t “the fear of fiasco” via melt-downs. It’s cost:

New nuclear plants go for at least $10 billion a pop—and that’s before cost overruns inevitably set in (as has happened with a much-hyped new reactor in Finland). Building intricate concrete and steel structures that can withstand all manner of disaster is a costly enterprise. According to a 2009 MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” getting electricity from nuclear costs about 8.4 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 6.2 cents for coal and 6.5 cents for natural gas. Other industry analysts have suggested that the MIT study is too optimistic, and that power from new nuclear plants could cost twice as much. (source)

Now you can see why MidAmerican Energy wants to stiff the customers for building a new plant. They probably can’t afford to do it on their own. Additionally, as Plumer notes, private companies like MidAmerican Energy might now realize that post-disaster remediation can really bite. Even Three-Mile Island cost $1billion and 14 years to clean up (1998 figures?). Plumer refers to a 2007 report by Charles Ferguson of the Council on Foreign Relations, and then observes: “all of the 104 reactors currently operating in the United States will likely need to be decommissioned by mid-century. Replacing those reactors (so simply preserving the status quo) would mean building a new reactor every four or five months for 50 years.”

Did I mention that they cost $10 billion each?

Read the whole article – it covers a lot more than the cost of nuclear power plants, and goes into a lot of detail about the feasibility of getting energy from renewables. But the bottom line? There’s no magic bullet.

Note: clicking on the illustration takes you to CNN Money article on Aging Nuclear Power Plants in the US.


May 3, 2010 at 11:16 pm | In green, NIMBYism, power_grid | 2 Comments

When the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began, I noticed some bittersweet satirical tweets reporting a windspill. For example, five days ago: “Hope u r ready to help clean up the inevitable windspill. :)” Or, three days ago: “BREAKING NEWS: Massive Windspill at WIndfarm… Residents complain about the breeze!”

By yesterday, Daily Kos published a “windspill” satire, and by today “windspill” made it to The Huffington Post: “BREAKING: Large Air Spill At Wind Farm. No Threats Reported. Some Claim To Enjoy The Breeze. (PICTURE)

It’s one of those satires that’s truly mordant. If only, if only…, we think, as the #oilspill disaster also known as #fuckbp spreads.

But why don’t we have a windspill “disaster”? Wouldn’t it be a stroke of luck, …instead of the mess we really have?

On April 29, Sarah Green, associate editor at the Harvard Business Review, posted From Oil Spills to Wind Farms, From NIMBY to BANANA. In her article, she gets to the heart of that question by pointing to NIMBYist (or BANANAist) obstructionism.

(If you’re not familiar with the acronyms, NIMBY stands for “Not In My Backyard” and BANANA stands for “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody [or Anything].”

Green describes the attempts to get wind farms built near Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, both of which depend heavily on tourism. For the past ten years, residents and other stakeholders have blocked the construction of wind farms, arguing that they’ll destroy the ambiance.

Energy, it seems, is something we can get elsewhere, from a wall socket or from petroleum that’s extracted (and refined) far, far away (in someone else’s backyard…). At home (in our backyard), we can maintain the status quo. The latter may be completely artificial, but it’s familiar and therefore comfortable.

Green asks:

So how will the energy industry — and the rest of the economy, which relies so heavily upon it — move forward when citizens seem determined to maintain the status quo? Politican after politician has espoused the need to create green jobs to revitalize the American economy and put it on a path to the future. The pages of HBR, among many others, have pointed to the necessity of building sustainable businesses to remain competitive in a world where companies will increasingly have to pay the costs of what were once dismissed as “externalities.” But as the local case study of Cape Wind makes all too clear, knowing that something is an economic necessity is very different from actually embracing it when it shows up on your own shores. (source)

Given what the Gulf residents will have to embrace when it shows up on their shores, maybe opposition to the construction of alternative power sources will soften.

(PS: I’m writing this on yet another day with wind warnings in effect for Southern Vancouver Island. While it’s always windy here, the past six weeks have been especially unrelenting. Earlier today, I posted a tweet with the hashtag #surrenderdorothy: it’s so harsh, I expect to see angry flying monkeys sweeping by, ready to take a swipe at us for not harnessing our wind energy here. What’s stopping us?)

Power outage: No island is an appendix, entire of itself…

October 13, 2008 at 5:17 pm | In power_grid, vancouver_island | 4 Comments

Yesterday afternoon’s power outage on southern Vancouver Island reminded me of an entry of mine from June 2005: Wanted: small solutions.

Some of the links to a blog that Sea Breeze Power Corporation had at the time have rotted away, but I still have a relevant quote up (and therefore preserved!):

On another business front, also with positive implications for Vancouver Island, Sea Breeze Pacific Juan de Fuca Cable, LP (“Sea Breeze Pacific” – a 49.75 % owned subsidiary of Sea Breeze Power Corp.), is moving into the Vancouver Island public consultation phase for its Juan de Fuca Transmission Cable.

The cable, a submarine 40 kilometre, 540-megawatt “High Voltage Direct Current” (“HVDC Light™”) line between Victoria, British Columbia and Port Angeles, Washington State, is designed to deliver power from “south to north” as well as “north to south”, providing critical reliability for Vancouver Island and strengthening the grids on both sides of the border.

Technical studies for the Juan de Fuca Cable, being conducted by utilities on both sides of the border, are expected to be completed Fall, 2005. The line is scheduled to be operational by Fall, 2007. [More…]

Alas, it’s the “more” link at the end of the quote that has rotted away.

Wow, my entry was from June 2005 — and at the time, Sea Breeze projected a Fall 2007 completion date.  Instead, their latest update is from Oct.3/08, reporting that

Sea Breeze Power Corp. is pleased to announce that the United States Army Corps of Engineers has issued a Permit authorizing the installation of the Juan de Fuca Cable Project (“JdF Cable”) on United States soil and seabed. The Permit represents the conclusion of US Federal and State Permitting requirements for the JdF Cable and is a milestone achievement in the development of the 50 kilometer, 550 MW High Voltage Direct Current Light® (“HVDC Light”) international submarine transmission cable.

I’m glad the project is still underway, but how sad is it that red tape and who knows what else have tied things up to the point that we’re still waiting?  Right now, Vancouver Island is like an appendix.  There’s one line going in, nothing going out, no circle, no loop.  That has to change.

No man is an island, and no island should be a mere appendix.

(I think I may have found my defining slogan… )

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