‘Healthy discussion’ at meeting of Light Board; fuel source the issue
Hull’s 2015 agreement, through the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. (MMWEC), to purchase power from the yet-to-be built Peabody Peaker Power Plant as one of many participating communities, came up for discussion at a recent well-attended, in-person Hull Municipal Light Board meeting.
Peaking power refers to providing capacity to generate more power during periods of peak demand, when the normal supply is not adequate to meet the needs of all of an electric company’s customers.
Some Hull residents who attended the meeting are among those with concerns about environmental, cost, and potential negative health impacts from building such a plant. Members/representatives of Breathe Clean North Shore, Hingham Net Zero, the Hingham Municipal Light Board, and the Cohasset Alternative Energy Committee also participated, with the discussion getting lively at times.
“There are those both in Peabody and elsewhere, including in Hull, who feel the project ought to be scrapped because it uses a fossil fuel for its power – natural gas,” town manager and Hull Municipal Light Plant manager Philip Lemnios told The Hull Times after the meeting. “Opponents to the plant feel that the use of batteries would be a superior alternative and more environmentally friendly. It should be noted that opposition to the type of fuel used at the facility is relatively recent, which makes it much more difficult to consider batteries as an option because it would [cause] a delay in implementation, which would lead to higher rates.”
Hull resident Judeth Van Hamm shared her perspective with the Times after participating in the meeting. “I don’t believe Hull should be part of this project,” she said. “Putting the town’s money into clean energy initiatives such as a tidal or off-shore wind turbine(s) – something that we will own entirely – will increase the town’s capacity.”
Van Hamm referred to the 2019 town meeting approval of the establishment by the Select Board of a 100 percent clean energy climate action task force to develop and make publicly available an operational plan on how to achieve the goal of using 100 percent clean and renewal energy by 2030 for all public, residential, and commercial energy users in Hull.
The decision for Hull to participate was driven by the recognition that the project would help stabilize rates while also providing reliable service, according to Lemnios.
The nonprofit MMWEC, through an energy partnership established in 1969, assists Massachusetts municipal light departments with their needs to contract for energy. “As part of their charge, MMWEC is always reviewing opportunities to improve supply reliability,” Lemnios said. “They only act at the request of utilities. Matt Ide, MMWEC’s executive director of energy and financial markets, did a great job describing the regulatory environment, the need for the plant, and the difficulties in changing the plant’s design at this late stage.”
Under the contract, signed by the Light Board and Lemnios, the town would be a 2 percent part-owner of the plant, along with the other communities that also have a share, “to cover our peaking power needs,” according to Light Board Chair Patrick Cannon. He noted that the town is required to include a certain amount of peaking power in its energy portfolio.
One of the major benefits, he said, is that this agreement “will save ratepayers a lot of money. The whole idea is to continue to deliver reliable electricity at a reasonable cost. That’s our charge as the town’s light board.”
Peaking power is supplied on demand as needed, Cannon said. “It takes the standard power plant a good length of time to be brought online, while peaking power is usually available” in a much shorter time.
Opponents of the Peabody plant say that, although it will operate relatively infrequently, it is proposed to be powered by natural gas, which they say undermines the state’s climate goals, among other concerns.
Cannon shares Lemnios’ reservations about opponents’ support for using batteries at this time. “In order to produce enough energy to power the region during peaking times, the batteries would have to be enormous, and there would have to be a place to keep them. If they could stay charged long enough to produce electricity for the duration of a power outage, they might work,” he said. “But if there was a 24-hour need for peaking power, we would be out of luck, so they’re not an option at this time.”
The group of Hull opponents is pushing hard, he acknowledged, “and I give them credit because that’s what they believe in and would like to see happen.”
However, that option would come with a price. “The light plant has 6,200 customers, and some of them are elderly and/or living on a low income,” Cannon said. “The light board has to consider them all, and rechargeable batteries would be very expensive. …
“The decision has been made, and nothing has changed after listening to what interested parties had to say at the meeting, including some opponents. It’s still a signed agreement, and the board has no intention of trying to exit from it at this moment in time.”
The permits for the Peabody plant have been approved, the Department of Public Utilities process has been followed, and there was “plenty of opportunity for public input” when the plant was proposed earlier. “It was an open process,” Cannon said.
Another issue among project opponents is whether Hull can get out of the agreement. While that answer is unclear, the cost of pulling out versus staying in will be researched. Another possibility would be to find another municipal light plant willing to buy Hull’s share in the plant.
There is no dispute by anyone, Lemnios said, “that there is a need for a power plant to provide for power capacity when demand spikes, such as on an incredibly warm day when everyone is running air conditioning units. If there is no plant, then either we will experience brown-outs on those days or have to buy power on the spot market at much higher costs. Neither of these alternatives is acceptable and can be avoided.”
According to Lemnios, the “only question” relates to the fuel source for the plant. “At this juncture, the use of batteries may not be completely feasible due to cost considerations over the expected life of the plant and the current regulatory environment that will not permit this type of resource to be sold effectively in the marketplace. These two issues would make the cost of batteries greater than the current plan, which would lead to higher rates for Hull residents.”
No decision was made at the meeting. Rather, “there was a healthy discussion that included updated information on the project and the DPU’s recent decision to approve the plant as proposed,” Lemnios said.
Sidebar: With 14 other towns, cities, Hull is part of electricity agreement
The Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC) website refers to the Peabody Peaker Power Plant as “Project 2015A,” describing it as a 55-megawatt capacity plant that will “provide necessary capacity for 14 nearby cities and towns during periods of peak electricity demand.”
Those communities include Hull, which signed an agreement in 2015 to be part of the project. However, there are a number of Hull residents, among others, who oppose the plant. (See related story.)
The plant is expected to run approximately 239 hours per year, only when called upon by ISO New England during times of system stress.
ISO is an independent, not-for-profit corporation responsible for keeping electricity flowing across the six New England states and ensuring that the region has reliable, competitively priced wholesale electricity now and into the future.
“Because it will be among the newest and most efficient resources, it will produce fewer emissions than 94 percent of the fossil fuel plants in New England,” according to the MMWEC website. ”Without this resource, local utilities that are required to have capacity will continue to rely on older, less-efficient energy power plants through the ISO-New England markets. Thus, this resource will displace carbon that would otherwise be produced by higher-polluting plants, resulting in a net reduction in carbon emissions.”