Thursday, October 17, 2013

Coal-fired and oil-fired electricity in New England

In New England today, the only significant use of coal is in a dwindling number of coal-fired electricity generating stations. [1] Just after World War II, almost all electricity and most industrial and space heating in the region were coal-fired, [2] but twenty years later most energy users had migrated to fuel oil, which remained remarkably cheap until the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. Around that time, much more demanding safety requirements rapidly raised costs of nuclear power plants. Then the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979 chilled remaining interest in nuclear power.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some New England generating units were adapted to use coal again, including ones in the large Salem Harbor plant and the giant Brayton Point plant in Somerset, MA. [3] Residents and business owners located nearby protested the pollution, and over time they were partly successful. After a campaign against the "filthy five" (actually six) most polluting power plants, [4] in 2001 Massachusetts issued fairly stringent new emissions rules for existing power plants, reaching full effects in 2012. [5] A similar but later campaign in Connecticut attacked the "sooty six" plants in that state, [6] resulting in less stringent regulations. [7]

In 2003, Exelon took over the giant Mystic plant in Everett, MA, which had been coal-fired, then oil-fired and equipped for steam-cycle natural gas; it was repowered using combined-cycle natural gas. [8] Exelon slid into bankruptcy because of poor earnings, lost its Massachusetts plants and reacquired them years later. [9] As fuel oil became uneconomic over the next few years, Mirant put the large, mostly oil-fired Canal plant in Sandwich, MA, into hibernation, [10] operating it only at extreme peaks of summer demand. That largely disposed of two of the six most polluting power plants in Massachusetts.

In 2007, NRG Energy proposed to convert the smaller, coal-fired Montaup plant in Somerset to coal gasification, [11] but in 2011 it closed the plant instead. [12] GDF Suez tried buying emission credits to keep running the smaller coal-fired Mt. Tom plant in Hoyoke, MA, but the plan became uneconomic; it announced that Mt. Tom will be delisted in 2016. [13] As agreed under a federal court order, in 2012 Dominion announced it would close the coal-fired Salem Harbor plant by the summer of 2014. [14] It sold the property to Footprint Power, which has received preliminary environmental approval to repower Salem Harbor using combined-cycle natural gas. [15] Five of the six most-polluting plants in Massachusetts were thus being closed, idled or repowered.

With the giant, coal-fired Brayton Point, Dominion tried to buck trends, spending over $1 billion to install cooling towers that replace water drawn from Mt. Hope Bay and pollution controls that substantially reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. [16] However, those efforts were financially undercut by declines in the prices of natural gas, and the plant ran at less than 20 percent of capacity after 2011. Dominion sold the plant in 2013 at a heavy loss. In October, 2013, new owner EquiPower announced that Brayton Point would be delisted by the summer of 2017. [17]

That development completed the disposition of all six of the most polluting power plants in Massachusetts. Just to the north, in Bow, New Hampshire, Merrimack became the one large remaining, frequently operated coal-fired power plant in New England. [18} Like Brayton Point, its output has been made uneconomic much of the time by natural gas prices. In May, 2012, Public Service of New Hampshire announced that Merrimack would be closed for all but peak periods of demand in summer and winter. [19] A 2006 New Hampshire law required Merrimack Station to achieve 80 percent reduction in mercury emissions. The company is in disputes over about $422 million spent through 2011 to retrofit the plant with more than the minimum pollution control specified in the law. [20]

Although stronger state regulations made differences in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire, shifts in the economics of power generation accelerated changes. Effects on New England power plants in recent years are shown in the following table, which tallies the outputs of large power plants for 2010, 2011 and 2012, compiled by the federal government. [21]

New England power plants with over 1 million megawatt-hours annual outputs

Plant name Location MW * 2010 MWh 2011 MWh 2012 MWh
Brayton Point Somerset, MA 1,100 6,574,727 3,382,751 1,817,889
Merrimack Bow, NH 451 2,667,326 1,982,492 1,185,688
** All large coal plants 1,550 9,242,052 5,365,243 3,003,577
Mystic Everett, MA 1,382 9,093,560 9,234,268 8,466,252
Lake Road Plant Dayville, CT 745 3,721,965 5,279,444 4,536,819
Fore River Weymouth, MA 688 4,247,152 4,781,876 4,048,023
Granite Ridge Londonderry, NH 678 3,241,127 3,839,821 4,824,841
Kleen Energy Midldetown, CT 628 0 2,040,433 4,062,939
R.I. State Johnston, RI 528 3,043,081 3,076,553 2,415,704
Newington En. Newington, NH 525 1,920,852 2,712,026 2,122,028
Milford Power Milford, CT 507 3,395,512 3,920,883 3,651,538
Westbrook Westbrook, ME 506 2,689,175 2,659,935 2,446,083
Maine Indep. Veazie, ME 490 2,657,587 1,775,905 1,243,500
Bellingham Bellingham, MA 475 1,728,914 1,095,126 1,728,447
Bridgeport Bridgeport, CT 454 3,294,276 2,861,180 2,913,274
Manchester St. Providence, RI 447 1,928,019 2,399,970 2,455,440
Ocean State Harrisville, RI 437 1,434,006 1,448,894 1,551,102
Blackstone Blackstone, MA 437 1,746,412 2,087,965 2,098,048
Millennium Charlton, MA 325 2,033,339 2,407,211 2,002,904
Tiverton Power Tiverton, RI 250 1,099,210 1,578,676 1,610,946
Verso Paper Bucksport, ME 250 1,380,078 1,346,241 1,382,575
Berkshire Power Agawam, MA 229 1,002,963 1,060,233 761,901
Kendall Square Cambridge, MA 218 1,485,468 1,053,133 1,346,268
** All large gas plants 10,199 51,142,696 56,659,773 55,668,631
Seabrook-1 Seabrook, NH 1,247 10,910,055 8,362,807 8,189,181
Millstone-3 Waterford, CT 1,233 9,335,738 9,344,084 10,751,630
Millstone-2 Waterford, CT 869 7,414,566 6,583,753 6,326,257
Pilgrim Plymouth, MA 685 5,917,813 5,085,220 5,859,540
Vermont Yankee Vernon, VT 620 4,782,473 4,907,355 4,989,338
** All operating nuclear units 4,655 38,360,645 34,283,219 36,115,946

               * Rated summer output: operating, non-peaking units

In 2008, outputs of New England's remaining coal-fired power plants began to fall, and in 2010 they entered rapid decline. For 2012, the largest ones operated at only 22 percent of capacity on average, with further declines in 2013. Plants powered by combined-cycle natural gas have been filling most of the gaps. However, only some of the gas-fired plants prospered during these years. Granite Ridge, in New Hampshire, and Tiverton, in Rhode Island, saw large increases in outputs. After a terrible explosion a few months before it was to open in 2010, [22] the Kleen Energy plant in Connecticut was repaired and has done well. Half the other large natural gas-fired plants in New England suffered declines in outputs, shown in the table.

Financial pressures have also affected the five remaining nuclear power units in New England. In August, 2013, Entergy threw in the towel with Vermont Yankee, located in Vernon. [23] It will close by the end of 2014. Of the ten New England nuclear power units, Seabrook-2 was abandoned before completion, and four others were previously closed. [24] The Seabrook-1 unit in New Hampshire shows a substantial drop in output. Prolonged subnormal outputs at Seabrook-1 and at Millstone-2 in Connecticut suggest those units might be threatened.

Although several combined-cycle natural gas-fired plants became successful by 2010, during the 20 years before that the owners of such plants suffered through many problems and financial losses. Besides increases in total electricity powered by combined-cycle natural gas, the recent declines in coal-fired and nuclear power have been partly offset by increased outputs of wind and solar power, contributing to reduced total outputs from fossil-fueled and nuclear plants. [25] A problem that will continue to need attention is limited transmission capacity to convey power from generators to customers. [26]

So-called "congestion" on transmission lines has been a chronic factor in low outputs from plants using combined-cycle natural gas that are distant from the major demand centers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. [27] [28] Plants notably affected include Maine Independence in Veazie, Berkshire Power in Agawam, MA, Bellingham Energy, also in Massachusetts, and Ocean State Power in Harrisville, RI. Wind farms in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have also encountered transmission restrictions. [29]

Through the bramble of changes, however, one result has remained consistent and strong. In New England, the long era of coal-fired, then oil-fired electricity generation has ended. A surge in natural gas from shale has provided an opportunity to expand renewable power sources, whose costs still remain so high that they operate mainly because of mandates and subsidies. If those costs can be reduced enough before prices of natural gas rise again, then coal and fuel oil will never return to dominate New England electricity.

[1] Lindsey Konkel, Coal's slipping grip: New England, virtually coal-free, leads the way, Environmental Health News, July 1, 2013 at

[2] Utilities promoted efficiency. Unattributed, Edgar steam-electric station in Weymouth, Massachusetts, 1925: a national historic mechanical engineering landmark, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1976, at Today the former Edgar, now Fore River plant in Weymouth has been repowered with combined-cycle natural gas.

[3] New England Region Annual Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1982, at EPA issued coal-conversion permits in 1979 for Brayton Point, in 1981 for Mt. Tom and in 1982 for Salem Harbor, all in Massachusetts.

[4] Rob Sargent, Cleaning up the filthy five, Environment Massachusetts and Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, 2007, at

[5] Emission standards for power plants, Statement of reasons and response to comments for 310 CMR 7.29, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, 2001, at

[6] The Connecticut campaign concentrated on mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions. Unattributed, Sooty six power plants, Clean Water Action (CT), 2003, at

[7] Liz Halloran, [Connecticut] takes action on mercury, Hartford Courant, 2003, at

[8] Jon Chesto, Mystic and Fore River plants are about to get yet another owner, Mass. Markets, 2011, at

[9] Unattributed, Boston Generating LCDS (loan-only credit default swap) auction results, CDS Market Information, 2010, at

[10] Chuck Kleekamp, Why oil is on the way out for New England's electric grid, Cape Cod (Hyannis) Times, 2007, at

[11] John Moss, Somerset Power gets OK to begin coal gasification, Wicked Local Somerset (MA) and Herald News, 2008, at

[12] Marc Munroe Dion, Somerset's NRG power plant closing down, Fall River (MA) Herald News, November, 2011, at

[13] Shanna Cleveland, Familiar cautionary tale unfolding at Mt. Tom, Conservation Law Foundation (MA), March 7, 2013, at

[14] U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, Conservation Law v. Dominion, Case cv-11069, Consent decree, February, 2012, available at See 26. Shutdown of Salem Harbor Station.

[15] Tom Dalton, Salem power plant gets tentative state approval, Salem (MA) News, October 9, 2013, at

[16] Jo C. Goode, Financial future of Somerset's Brayton Point is bleak, Fall River (MA) Herald News, March 1, 2013, at

[17] Steve Urbon, Brayton power station to close by 2017, New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times, October 8, 2013, at The event was ignored at the time by large general-interest news media in New England.

[18] A few coal-fired plants, including 530 MW Bridgeport Harbor, remain in standby for extreme summer peaks and emergencies. However, in 2012 Bridgeport Harbor ran an average of only 3 percent of rated capacity. Brian Lockhart, Bridgeport Harbor Station gets permit for five more years, (Bridgeport) Connecticut Post, November, 2012, at

[19] Kathryn Marchocki, Merrimack Station power plant in Bow temporarily shut down, Manchester (NH) Union Leader, May, 2012, at

[20] Bob Sanders, Public Service of New Hampshire turns to New Hampshire Supreme Court in scrubber showdown with state's Public Utilities Commission, New Hampshire Business Review, October 4, 2013, at PSNH installed wet gas desulfurization when it might have gotten by with less expensive sorbent injection and fabric filters.

[21] Power plant operating data, Form EIA-923 and related forms, U.S. Energy Information Admimistration, 1970-2012, at

[22] Unattributed, Kleen Energy natural gas explosion, U.S. Chemical Safety Board, 2010, at

[23] Matthew L. Wald, Entergy will close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, New York Times, August 28, 2013, at

[24] Unattributed, Nuclear power safety in New England, Union of Concerned Scientists (MA), April, 2012, at

[25] Massachusetts state profile and energy estimates, U.S. Energy Information Admimistration, 2013, at See similar data for other New England states.

[26] New England congestion area of concern, in National Electric Transmission Congestion Study, U.S. Department of Energy, 2009, pp. 52-58 at

[27] Unattributed, Transmission congestion cost rising in New England, Electric Light and Power, 2001, at

[28] Brad Kane, Billion-dollar transmission project anticipates power weaknesses, Hartford (CT) Business Review, 2010, at

[29] Diane Cardwell, Intermittent nature of green power is challenge for utilities, New York Times, August 15, 2013, at

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