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What Happens after Coal?

When coal-fired power plants close communities can face painful transitions, and the debate over one Massachusetts facility shows the local impacts of a national shift to cleaner power

The February agreement between Footprint and the Conservation Law Foundation let the gas plant go forward. It put a declining cap on the plant's CO2 emissions and required Footprint to shut it down by 2050. Footprint promised the plant wouldn't bust Massachusetts' greenhouse gas limits, Kaplan said. "So we said 'Okay, put that in the permit.'" The agreement makes the proposed gas plant the first to be approved with an expiration date.

Coal energy's reversal of fortune over the past decade has been dizzying. Its share of U.S. electricity generation fell from 52 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2012, thanks to a boom in shale gas development. The Energy Information Administration projects that by 2035 natural gas will generate more electricity than coal.

As gas eats into coal plants' profit margins, new limits on mercury and air toxics emissions taking effect in 2015 will take another bite. Another measure, the federal Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, will require still more expensive controls on coal plants in the Midwest and South to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that travel across state lines, creating ozone and fine particle pollution downwind.

Many companies are instead shutting plants down.

Is gas the answer? Footprint's owners contend that the gas plant will make Salem a healthier place to live. Many minority, low-income and limited-English residents live close to the Salem plant and are at risk from its emissions. "The existing plant has outrageously high nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions, which contribute to ground-level ozone and exacerbate asthma. We think it's important to shut it down and replace it with one that will reduce pollution locally and regionally," Furniss said. He estimated that switching from coal to gas in Salem will cut New England's sulfur dioxide emissions by 10 percent, nitrogen oxide by 8 percent, and mercury by 6 percent, and will reduce the region's carbon dioxide emissions by about 450,000 tons per year.

Martha Dansdill, the director of HealthLink, an activist group based in nearby Swampscott, is unpersuaded. Dansdill has marshaled opposition to running a gas line to the new plant through densely populated neighborhoods. The state, HealthLink argues, should help Salem find other uses for the site. Another group, GASPP, or Grassroots Against Another Salem Power Plant, has pledged to use peaceful civil disobedience to block construction of the gas plant.

In contrast, SAFE conditionally supports the gas plant. "We have to build a mind-boggling amount of infrastructure to scale up renewables, and it won't happen overnight," Barz-Snell said. "In the meantime, this plant will provide the cleanest and most efficient generation in Massachusetts."

Some communities might welcome a developer like Footprint, but for now the company is focused on Salem. And Furniss acknowledges that its approach is not very scalable. "Building a power plant is very people-intensive," he said. "I'd like to see us managing a couple of projects at a time, but I don't envision growing beyond that level."

Massachusetts activists, meanwhile, are focusing on Somerset, 60 miles south of Salem, which has two old coal plants. The smaller plant, Somerset Station, shut down in 2010 and stood vacant while the owner stripped it for scrap and then went bankrupt, leaving unpaid tax bills. Somerset's other plant, Brayton Point, is twice as large as Salem Station and is still burning coal, but the 1,500-megawatt plant is scheduled to shut down in 2017. Residents have criticized local officials for failing to identify new development opportunities or alternative uses for the plants. Massachusetts has offered $6 million to Somerset, Salem and Holyoke, site of a third aging coal plant, to pursue renewable energy projects, but state officials say decisions about the future are up to communities.

"Towns need to be realistic about the future of coal plants. Assuming they will always be there inhibits rational planning," said Kaplan, the CLF vice president. "Officials should acknowledge the risk that plants will close and start diversifying their commercial tax bases to prepare for it."

"Getting these decisions right is hard, but it's especially hard for places that have an emotional attachment to coal.",

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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