Could batteries replace a proposed peaker plant in Massachusetts?


Environmental activists and local residents in Massachusetts are urging the group behind a planned natural gas power plant to consider whether battery storage could do the job with fewer climate concerns. 

“It’s six years since this project was proposed,” said Susan Smoller, a resident of Peabody, where the plant would be sited. “We have different alternatives available to us now and we should at least talk about it before we commit.”

The organization developing the plant announced last month that it will pause its plans for at least 30 days to address community concerns and reevaluate possible alternatives, but some involved are still skeptical that storage could be a viable solution. 

The proposed plant is a project of the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC), a nonprofit that helps municipal utilities procure power supply and advocates for their interests. The 55-megawatt facility would be a so-called “peaker plant,” intended to run only at times of peak demand, estimated at no more than 250 hours per year. 

MMWEC contends that the facility’s emissions would be lower than those of 94% of the fossil fueled peaker plants in New England. The reliability the new plant provides would also allow participating utilities to invest in more intermittent renewables like solar and wind, the organization claims. 

Fourteen municipal utilities have signed on to the project, though two have filed paperwork asking to be released from their agreements. 

The case for storage

Opponents of the plant are concerned about the additional greenhouse gas emissions as well as the potential for ground-level pollution in an area that is already exposed to high levels of ozone. They also worry that laws and regulations will make the burning of fossil fuels obsolete, leaving consumers on the hook for an $85 million plant that isn’t even used. 

“I don’t want to be paying for an outmoded dirty peaker plant 25 years from now when it’s not even legal to run them,” Smoller said. 

Resistance to the proposed plant has picked up in recent months, as stakeholders have learned more about the plan and started speaking up. In May, a group of 87 health care professionals sent MMWEC a letter opposing the plan. 

In the face of this growing opposition, MMWEC decided to take what it called the “unusual step” of putting a hold on its plans to take “another look at whether advancements in technology make a different approach possible today.” 

Experts say that, in general, battery storage is a viable alternative for plants that only run when demand is highest. Batteries could charge up during times of lower demand, when the power supply is generally from cleaner sources, and then discharge at times of high demand, displacing the energy from peaker plants, which is generally dirtier and more expensive. A study by nonprofit research institute Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy found that two-thirds of Massachusetts peaker plants burn primarily oil, a high-emissions fuel. 

As more renewable energy is added to the grid, the power charging the batteries will get yet cleaner, amplifying the impact. 

Furthermore, the cost of utility-scale storage fell nearly 70% between 2015 — when the Peabody plant was proposed — and 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and is expected to continue its downward trajectory. 

“Not only are they cost-competitive with things like power plants, but that’s going to be even more and more true as you’re starting to plan into the future,” said Elena Krieger, author of the peaker plant study. 

Krieger points to storage projects in California that are already proving that case. In Oakland, a 36-megawatt battery is planned to replace part of the power supplied by an existing jet fuel-fired power plant. 

In Monterey County, a 300-megawatt battery array recently came online, consisting of some 99,000 individual battery modules that are charged mainly during hours when solar energy is contributing the most to the grid. Plans are in the works to add another 100 megawatts this summer. 

However…

“It’s not a matter of, ‘Can it do it?’ It’s doing it,” said Jason Burwen, interim chief executive of the Energy Storage Association. “The question is the specifics.”

And in Peabody, the specifics are not promising for a storage solution, said Peter Dion, general manager of Wakefield Municipal Gas and Light, one of the municipal utilities signed on to the project. He is unconvinced that batteries would offer the reliability project participants need. A natural gas plant can be counted on the run when needed, for as long as needed. Storage can be dispatched quickly, but only lasts for a limited time. 

Deploying more batteries could help mitigate this concern, but space and location are also major issues, Dion said. By his estimate, the number of batteries it would take to adequately replace the power plant would require three acres of land, far more than is available at the proposed site.

Choosing a different site wouldn’t make sense, he said. There is an existing power plant on the intended site in Peabody, so the infrastructure is already in place to hook up a new facility.  

“You couldn’t put enough batteries on that site to make an appreciable difference,” Dion said. 

The financial numbers are also unlikely to add up, he said. The power plant would be expected to run for 30 years. In that timespan, batteries would need to be replaced at least twice, he said. Batteries may be affordable in the short-term, Dion said, but would likely cost more in the long-run. 

“Batteries are a great supplement, but they are not a replacement,” he said. 

As the break in planning for the Peabody plant continues, opponents appreciate MMWEC’s willingness to reassess but are not easing up on their challenge to the project. The Massachusetts Climate Action Network is working with another nonprofit to investigate clean energy alternatives to the project. The group is also pushing the municipal utilities to engage with the residents in each district involved to hear their concerns and ideas. 

“Hopefully the pause represents a willingness to partner with ratepayers to explore alternatives,” said the climate action network’s executive director Sarah Dooling. “I hope it is a good-faith gesture.”

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