In New England, much-needed natural gas comes with a climate twist

Correction appended.

A 692-megawatt gas-fired power plant has been cleared for construction on the Salem, Mass., harbor front, with authorities calling it part of the answer to meeting the state's 2020 climate goals.

Footprint Power's plant is expected to replace electric power from oil and coal generators having larger carbon footprints, adding to a recent downward trend in greenhouse gas emissions as gas use in power plants has taken off in New England. Carbon dioxide emissions in the region have dropped 21 percent since 2007, according to the region's grid operator.

But if the Salem plant is part of the short-term solution, is it also part of a long-term problem?

That is how the Conservation Law Foundation sees it. The New England advocacy group appealed to a Massachusetts court to set aside the Oct. 10 decision by the state's Energy Facilities Siting Board approving the plant.

Massachusetts' Global Warming Solutions Act requires a 25 percent reduction of statewide carbon emissions in 2020 below 1990 levels. It also mandates that emissions be cut to 80 percent of the 1990 base levels by 2050.

The shale gas windfall in the Northeast has made gas-fired generation a key option for ensuring reliable electricity supply in Massachusetts and neighboring New England states. Gas is also promoted as an immediate step to reduce greenhouse gas releases. More than half the new power generation capacity proposed for New England is gas-fired, according to the New England Independent System Operator (NE-ISO), the regional grid operator.

But unless new pipeline capacity is built to supply gas generators, the region can expect gas price shocks and supply disruptions in extreme winter weather, the NE-ISO's consultants warn. State-level and federal inquiries are underway on how to ensure enough pipeline capacity to guarantee adequate supplies of gas to the new turbine units.

"This is the natural gas dilemma," said Seth Kaplan, policy vice president for the Conservation Law Foundation. "In the short term to medium term, gas has been and continues to be an essential element to making a transition that the energy system needs to make. In New England, we are on the verge of removing coal from the system. That transition has to occur. Getting gas right during this transitional period is very tricky and very important.

"For a while, gas done right reduces pollution and improves the energy system, but at a certain point -- and it's pretty close to happening -- we need to continue the transition," he said.


Natural gas, although it has half the climate impact of coal in a power plant, is still a hydrocarbon, said senior CLF attorney Shanna Cleveland. The growing natural gas infrastructure of generator turbines and pipelines is likely to have plenty of useful life remaining in 2050.

"Once the plant is operating, once the pipe is in the ground, it's really difficult to shut them down," Cleveland said.

In Salem's case, the power plant has been the town's largest taxpayer for years, and city officials were eager for a replacement after the prior owner decided to shut down coal boilers on the site.

When the new Salem Harbor gas plant runs at full schedule, it will push out about 2.2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year. By 2050, the state's climate law requires total statewide greenhouse gas emissions to shrink to 19 million metric tons. "Simple math tells us that's 13 percent [of] total emissions from everything we need to do to power our society: transportation, electricity, buildings, you name it, across the board," said CLF attorney Sue Reid, appearing before the siting board last month.

They could put the state's demanding 2050 climate goals out of reach or force retirements or curtailments of billions of dollars of gas generation before its time, Kaplan said.

More proposals for gas plants are coming, particularly if U.S. EPA rules accelerate coal plant retirements. "When you're locking in some of this new fossil fuel infrastructure, you're locking out renewables, or energy storage that might have played in that market space but for the fact that gas prices are so cheap," Cleveland said.

There are a number of scenarios that get New England safely through the transition to new electricity supplies. The New England States Committee on Electricity, representing the region's governments, hired the consulting firm Black & Veatch to study threats to grid reliability if gas generation strains existing pipeline capacity. Its report in April charted very different possible strategies.

One was a "low demand" scenario based on energy efficiency and other demand-side management programs and increases in renewable energy supplies, which result in minor increases in natural gas demand in the long term that could be met by the construction of a single new pipeline carrying Marcellus Shale gas into Massachusetts that is to open in 2016 (EnergyWire, Oct. 16).

Its "high gas" scenario relies predominantly on new natural gas generation, assuming that renewable energy falls short of goals and nuclear plants are retired early. Gas demand grows by 1.7 percent a year, requiring additional large-scale new infrastructure investments, including a new regional natural gas pipeline crossing the top of Massachusetts.

A future in doubt

The issue in the Salem case is that Massachusetts hasn't been able to figure out which future it wants, Cleveland said.

A proposed new power plant coming before the Energy Facilities Siting Board must show that its project complies with all environmental laws, among other conditions. That means the New Jersey developers of the Salem gas plant have to have a way to satisfy the 2050 statewide requirement for an 80 percent greenhouse gas reduction below 1990 levels, she said.

"In the first instance, that is the state's responsibility, and they didn't meet it," Cleveland said. A plan for 2050 is still under development with no timetable, according to the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. A state plan might establish a carbon price, tighten regional greenhouse gas trading ceilings, put a sunset date on gas plants or take other steps to hit the 2050 target.

Had a state plan existed, Footprint Power could have pledged to comply. Without the plan, the burden shifts to the developer to show that the project is consistent with the state Global Warming Solutions Act, and that hasn't happened, either, she contends.

The siting board disagreed. Two hypothetical "illustrative" future scenarios developed by the state present a "plausible" way for the Salem plant to continue operating "well into the future," within the climate act's requirements, the board said.

Cleveland said she recognizes the dilemma of a single power plant developer trying to fit its single project into statewide requirements for 2050 with regional elements, when the shape of energy markets even five years out is a mystery. "That doesn't mean we can approve a project that will have a life span enduring throughout the life span of the act," she contended.

At one siting board hearing, board member Penn Loh, a Tufts University faculty member, protested, "We don't have enough specificity ... to really have any standard of review going over into the 2050 time period. ... I don't think we can say either way right now whether it's consistent or not [with the act], because the standards really aren't there."

The board approved the project, with Loh abstaining and all others in favor.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Massachusetts' 2050 greenhouse gas reduction requirement.

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