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Solar Endorsed As Replacement For Coal Plant

The cover photo of the Mount Tom Reuse Study Report

A former coal-burning power plant, blamed by environmentalists for polluting the air in western Massachusetts, is being considered as a site to produce clean, renewable energy.

A year-long study into redeveloping the Mount Tom Power Station has come up with three reuse options for the 128-acre property that sits along the Connecticut River in Holyoke. Each of the three scenarios includes a solar power facility.

Hector Figarella, an organizer with the community group Neighbor to Neighbor who has advocated for using the power plant site for “public good,” endorsed the solar option.

" Our consensus has been that solar is the way to go," he said. " It makes the most sense for the site."

The 146-page Mount Tom Power Plant Reuse Study said the site could be used for solar panels alone, or combined with passive recreation such as a bike trail and public boat launch. Another option pairs solar with a system that decomposes organic matter and produces a gas that can be substituted for traditional fossil fuels to generate energy.

" The key thing is that this is just a study of what is possible on the site," said Figarella. " The plant owner has to do the right thing."

A spokesperson for GDF SUEZ Energy North America , owner of the Mount Tom Station said solar is being pursed as an option for the former power plant. 

There are significant challenges to any redevelopment. The smokestack and other plant structures must be demolished and the level of remaining contamination assessed. Also, part of the site is located in a floodplain and there are endangered or protected species on the land and in the river.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said the reuse options are viable, but he continues to hold out hope for a private development on part of the site that would generate commercial activity.

"We still need to explore ways to maximum tax revenue coming into our city and to replace some of the jobs lost with the plant closure, " said Morse.

At one time the plant’s owners paid more than $500,000 annually in property taxes.  In addition to the hit to the city’s tax base, 28 people lost their jobs when the plant shut down for a good a year ago.

" There are some short terms jobs that come with solar, and I do think it is a good use for a portion of the site," said Morse in an interview.

The reuse study was produced by the city, an economic development consultant, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center which funded the $100,000 study.

The Massachusetts Legislature authorized the agency to lead studies on reusing coal-burning power plants in the state. One plant, in Salem, is being converted to natural gas.

The economics of using natural gas versus coal to generate electricity is what led to the decision to shut down the Mount Tom Plant which was announced in June 2014.           

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