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Berkshire Environmental Group Pushing To “Put Peakers In The Past”

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No Fracked Gas in Mass

Tonight, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Board of Health will hear a petition calling for three Berkshire County power plants to transition to green energy. The Berkshire Environmental Action Team’s No Fracked Gas in Mass initiative is behind the effort. The group says it would reduce the environmental and health impacts from the “peaker” plants that come online during spikes in energy use by customers. They’ve also organized an ongoing Friday afternoon demonstration series against the plants on Dalton Avenue in Pittsfield by one of the peakers located on Merrill Road. WAMC spoke with No Fracked Gas in Mass program director Rose Wessell about the initiative.

WESSEL: No Fracked Gas in Mass started in response to the large pipeline projects that were being proposed in 2014. We initially responded to the NED pipeline, the Northeast Energy Direct, that was proposed by Kinder Morgan, and soon found that there were five large pipelines being proposed across the state at that time. Since then, that project has been withdrawn, one of the other big pipelines was withdrawn. We've been making sure to keep on top of new fracked gas infrastructure that was being proposed and present arguments as to why it shouldn't be built. And now with our “Put Peakers In The Past” campaign, we're starting to take on existing fossil fuel infrastructure that we feel has had its time and doesn't need to be what it is anymore.

WAMC: Now, there is a “peaker” plant here in Pittsfield Massachusetts. Can you provide a working definition of what a “peaker” plant is?

There's actually three “peaker” plants in Berkshire County, two of them in Pittsfield. They run when the grid is already maxed out and the regular generating plants are maxed out and there's just a little more power needed to- Usually during the hottest, most humid weather, especially if it's a string of days, these plants come online to address that extra power that's needed for everyone's air conditioning and so on.

And what makes “peaker” plants particularly adverse to the environment?

They need a long time- First of all, most of them are old. Let's start with that basis. In Massachusetts, there are 24 “peaker” plants. The majority of them are 30 years old or older. I think it's more than half of them are 50 years old or older. So they're inefficient just because of that. They don't run as efficiently as efficiently as a new plant. And they also need time to gear up. So there's a startup period when startup generators are running. And then when they generate, they're actually producing power, but then they need to gear down as well. So there's more emissions for the startup and the gear down. It's a little bit like, you know, how people weigh the idea of, should they stop their car to stoplight? It actually takes more mission sometimes to start that car back up again when the light turns green. It's a little bit like that. They put out a lot more per megawatt.

Now, there are residential neighborhoods nearby a lot of the industrial zones in Pittsfield. And of course, the city, with its long history with General Electric, has a tortured history with corporate pollution. What is the impact of “peaker” plants on folks living in the vicinity?

In the vicinity, there's particulate matter. It's very fine particulate matter. 2.5 pm is the designation that tends to go really deep into the nasal passages and lungs. And that really affects people's cardiovascular and respiratory health, especially children and the elderly. And of course, “peaker” plants have the disadvantage of firing up when it's already hot and humid and air quality is low. And it's just pumping that kind of pollution, plus nitrous oxides and sulfur oxides into the air, when it's already thick and heavy and hard to breathe.

Now, who operates these plants?

Well, there's usually a company that operates and then there’s the companies that own. Pittsfield Generating seems to have had the same operator for some time even though the company name keeps changing. But it trades hands fairly often. We started out our campaign to push “peaker” plants to transition to clean energy by writing to the owners of these plants. And Doreen and Woodland, for instance, were owned by a company called NAEA. So we wrote to that company and we heard back from Cogentrix who had just bought them out. And we actually heard back from them on the request, and they are very much into the idea of transitioning and they appreciated the nudge. And we've had a meeting with them legislators and city officials from Pittsfield and Lee to start the process of parsing out how a transition can happen. Pittsfield Generating we haven't heard back from, they're owned by a company called Hull Street Energy, which is in turn owned by a company in California, which is in turn owned by a company in Japan. We've been writing to Hull Street because that's who's on the air quality permit that was just applied for renewal. And we haven't heard back from them. So that's why we're starting to take to the streets to ask for that meeting to happen.

Pittsfield Generating, Hull Street Energy and Cogentrix Energy did not respond to requests for comment.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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