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New Peabody 'peaker' power plant prepares to go online less green than promised

The Peabody peaker power plant is seen in October 2023.
Sophie Noelle Hartley for GBH News
The Peabody peaker power plant is seen in October 2023.

The new Peabody power plant will soon start up for the first time, but it won’t be running on clean fuel as officials once assured. It will burn diesel and natural gas.

The Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company initially proposed using fossil fuels for the so-called “peaker plant.” The nonprofit utility said in its 2016 proposal that the $85 million project would only operate at peak times of energy demand, typically the coldest and warmest days of the year, when the energy grid is otherwise overdrawn. The goal was to keep the power on without having to raise energy prices on those high-demand days.

But after activists and healthcare providers raised concerns about increased air pollution and carbon emissions, MMWEC changed course. In 2021, the utility announced it would operate the plant with a blend of green hydrogen and natural gas fuel, and eventually shift fully to hydrogen.

That plan now seems to be on hold. Joe Anastasi, manager of the Peabody Municipal Light Plant, said the plant is equipped to burn natural gas, oil and hydrogen — but, in part due to supply chain issues, the utility has not been able to procure any green hydrogen to burn.

And the plant is near opening. Spokeswoman Kate Roy said in an email that it is waiting to be dispatched by the regional electric grid, which she said could happen “any day now.”

The news has disappointed climate activists.

“[Peabody] could have been the first in the state to say no to burning more fossil fuels,” said Sudi Smoller, the founder of Peabody environmental advocacy group Breathe Clean North Shore. “We would have found a way. That’s what people do.”

“[Peabody] could have been the first in the state to say no to burning more fossil fuels.” Sudi Smoller, founder of Breathe Clean North Shore

Apart from a brief notice MMWEC published in the local paper in 2016, the peaker went largely unnoticed by the public for five years.

Then, in March 2021, the local Sierra Club urged members to oppose the natural gas and diesel plant. Activists questioned the timing: By 2050, Massachusetts’ electric grid must reach net zero carbon emissions, according to a 2021 state law. They wondered why the utility would put a new fossil fuel plant on the grid when cleaner alternatives were available.

That May, 87 Massachusetts healthcare professionals signed a letter calling for “an end to this misguided project,” citing air quality concerns and health inequities. The plant would emit 51,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, the letter said, which would be equivalent to adding 11,000 cars on Massachusetts roads.

“The residents of Peabody currently have higher than state average rates of air-pollution related illnesses, and the air pollution associated with the new plant will increase mortality within the Peabody community,” the letter said.

State officials, climate activists and Peabody residents also spoke out against the plant, voicing anger about its proximity to a daycare and small businesses. 

In response, MMWEC announced a 30-day “pause” to address the concerns. MMWEC noted it was “an unusual step” for a project permitted years earlier, but they acknowledged technology had advanced since 2016. “Can we find a way to develop a needed capacity resource that isn’t fossil fuel-fired but still reliable in times of need?” said Ron DeCurzio, MMWEC’s chief executive, in the statement.

In June 2021, MMWEC announced a new plan. In a public meeting, Ed Krasinski, a project consultant, said the goal was to open the plant the following year with a blend of 75% natural gas and 25% green hydrogen. He said that Mitsubishi, the company that manufactured the plant’s turbine, was “aggressively pursuing” this target.

Krasinski also said that Mitsubishi hoped to increase its turbine’s capacity to a blend of 80% hydrogen by 2030.

“With regards to the project, we’re looking at converting to 100% green hydrogen post-construction,” said Brian Quinn, MMWEC’s director of engineering and generation assets. “The whole goal is to have green hydrogen refuel our future, and we’re on the way to doing that.”

On paper, MMWEC proposed a more measured shift. In a November 2021 bond offering, MMWEC stated the plant would begin operating with a 10% hydrogen blend, and achieve up to a 20% hydrogen blend by 2030, rather than the 80% suggested at the meeting. Depending on “advancements in technology,” the document said, “the green hydrogen mix may increase before and after 2030.”

Anastasi said MMWEC told him recently that the plant is equipped to accommodate a maximum 30% hydrogen fuel blend. 

When asked about the differences in projections, Roy said that because the technology and process was new, “expectations can change throughout the research and testing process.” 

Roy said that Mitsubishi was still testing the use of green hydrogen, so “we’re not exactly sure what percentage of green hydrogen will be incorporated and when.” She said MMWEC is committed to using green hydrogen “when it is feasible to do so.”

MMWEC recently updated its website to remove previous posts about the peaker plant and created a new page calling the plant the Northeast Reliability Center. The site says it will be online in 2024, and will be “fueled by natural gas, with oil as a backup, retro-fitted for green hydrogen.”

Sophie Hartley and Hannah Richter are graduate students at MIT. This story is a collaboration between GBH News and an investigative journalism class at MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing taught by Sarah Childress, Christina Couch and Angela Saini. 

Copyright 2024 WGBH Radio

Sophie Hartley
Hannah Richter