Innovation Ecosystem

In the shadow of no towers

How can we celebrate the implosion of two cooling towers for a defunct coal plant but refuse to talk about the political urgency of implementing a Green New Deal?

Photo by Karyn Jimenez Elliot, image courtesy of Save The Bay, Currents

On Saturday morning, April 27, the twin cooling towers at the defunct Brayton Point coal plant were imploded.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/6/19
The implosion of twin cooling towers at the former Brayton Point coal plant provides an important inflection point to reconsider Rhode Island’s perverse relationship with the fossil fuel industry.
Where and when does the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem collide with the threats of potential climate catastrophe at the Providence waterfront, a few thousand yards from the soon-to-open Wexford Innovation Complex, in a major weather event? How prepared are the Rhode Island health care systems to cope with the potential of public health threats of disease from climate change threats? Why do few if any of the new buildings now under construction have any behind-the-meter solar panels as part of their edifice? Given that Pacific Gas & Electric has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in California, what is the potential for National Grid to face a similar financial liability crunch? When will the weather reports and traffic reports on radio and TV include daily updates on climate change news?
In the good news department, the U.S. EPA awarded the R.I. Department of Health as one of only three national winners of the 2019 National Environmental Leadership Award in Asthma Management, honoring the program for its excellent environmental asthma management to improve the lives of children and families with asthma.
The effort includes an evidence-based Home Asthma Response Program, which was able to show a 75 percent reduction in asthma-related hospital and emergency room costs for HARP participants. For every dollar invested in HARP participants, the program realized a $1.33 return on investment. The program recently expanded to provide HARP home-visiting services statewide for Medicaid-enrolled children.
Of course, improving safe, affordable housing resources and diminishing the threats from environmental hazards and air pollution to neighborhoods already overburdened from such threats would address the roots of the problem.

PROVIDENCE – Many people watched and cheered the implosion of the twin cooling towers at the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Mass. on Saturday morning, April 27, reveling in the thrilling industrial porn of destruction. Reporters swarmed the event. Videos of the implosion were posted everywhere and replayed again and again on the local news.

On the ground, following the implosion, most reporters soon departed; some local residents put on breathing masks to protect them from airborne cement dust particles spewed into the air from the implosion, yet one more health hazard to be endured, two years after the decades-old polluting coal-burning plant had been shuttered, a grim reminder of the constant patina of black coal dust that had settled on their lives ever since the plant began operating in 1963.

Yes, the skyline had changed, as one local TV news anchor observed in a Sunday evening broadcast, in a Captain Obvious moment. But, a more probing question to ask would be: How has the political landscape shifted as a result of the implosion? What lessons have been learned about our perverse relationship to the fossil fuel industry? How do we report on the significance of such an implosion, now that time is running out on our ability to sustain life on Earth as we have known it, with the planet under siege from man-made climate change?

Many observers wanted to see the implosion as a hopeful harbinger in the shifting paradigm of our energy future, a visible, tangible moment of a sea change, celebrating the move away from coal toward a more renewable future. “It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” one observer tweeted, espousing hope.

Poof! And the twin cooling towers were gone from our horizon. It will be much, much harder to scrub away and to erase the decades of damages done, if ever.

Dirty laundry
As Tim Faulkner’s reporting in ecoRI News on the implosion makes clear, the legacy behind the towers carried with it a history of dirty laundry.

The $570 million cooling towers were completed in 2012 – just seven years ago – as the result of a decades long legal and environmental battle with the plant’s owners to cool the water being discharged daily into Mount Hope Bay.

“At its peak, the Brayton Point Power Station pumped more than 1 billion gallons of heated water into the estuary daily, decimating fish such as winter flounder and marine larvae,” Faulkner reported.

A protracted legal battle ended with a settlement that led the owner, Dominion, to build the cooling towers, Faulkner recounted. The towers allegedly “worked,” as the water used for cooling was returned to Mount Hope Bay at nearly the natural temperature.

Dominion, however, sold Brayton Point to investment company Energy Capital Partners in 2013. Soon after, the new owners decided to cease operations. Large protests and ongoing pressure from climate activists and environmental groups weren’t the reason for the closure, according to the energy investment company. They blamed expensive air pollution-control equipment and the plummeting price of electricity from natural-gas power plants, according to Faulkner’s reporting. In essence, the owners saw Brayton Point as a casualty of the fracking boom.

The externalities of public health costs – the deaths and diseases directly attributed to the operation of the coal-burning plant – had never been included as part of the cost equation. Nor had the problems of coal-burning power plants – accelerated climate change and ocean warming and nitrification and the destruction of fisheries – ever been factored into the cost equation.

Protecting the bay
Save the Bay, which was founded in 1970 and is celebrating 50 years of advocacy, offered its own version of the historical significance of the implosion, having been involved with challenging Brayton Point and its operations since 1972.

“As we often say at Save The Bay, some of the greatest victories take the most time. On Saturday, the implosion of the Brayton Point’s twin cooling towers placed an exclamation point on the end of the coal era in the Narragansett Bay watershed,” the nonprofit advocacy group posted last week in its online newsletter, Currents, written by baykeeper Mike Jarbeau.

Here is how Save The Bay recounted the story, providing key historical details that were missing from most other telescoped news coverage of the implosion:

Brayton Point Power Station went on line in Somerset, Mass., in 1963. It was the largest coal-fired plant in New England, operating along the mouth of the Lee River and Mount Hope Bay. During its half-century of operation, the Brayton Point Power Station was one of the biggest polluters in New England. At peak capacity, the plant could power approximately 1.5 million homes, but at great environmental cost.

Save The Bay’s involvement with Brayton Point began around 1972 when the plant proposed construction of a fourth power-generating unit. Of primary concern was the cooling water system, which took in a billion gallons of water a day from Mount Hope Bay and discharged it at more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, the Lee River and Mount Hope Bay experienced numerous fish kills during the 1960s and 70s. Regardless, the plant’s expansion was approved, and a fourth generating unit was built and brought online.

At the time, Save The Bay felt that minor alterations to the cooling water discharge system were insufficient. The discharge dramatically altered nearby water conditions, destroyed fish larvae, and decimated the winter flounder population.

In the mid-1990s, about a decade after Brayton Point increased its discharge of heated cooling water into Mount Hope Bay to an average of 1.4 billion gallons a day, the Department of Environmental Management found an 87 percent decline in Mount Hope Bay fish populations. DEM found significant evidence of a loss in Bay productivity as a result of increased temperatures from cooling water discharge and the destruction of fish and larvae as water was drawn into the plant.

To reverse this devastating trend, Save The Bay began advocating for a reduction in discharge levels and successfully forged an agreement on an interim permit for Brayton Point between government agencies and New England Power Company. The new permit required the plant to reduce its discharge levels to pre-1985 levels, giving relief to struggling fish populations. Soon after, the EPA revoked the plant’s discharge permit, leading to a decade of upgrades intended to reduce the environmental impact of Brayton Point’s operations.

In total, more than a billion dollars were spent on plant upgrades. The most obvious was the two massive cooling towers, completed in 2012 and designed to reduce the impact of the heated water discharged into Mount Hope Bay. Save The Bay was heavily involved in advocating for improvements to the plant’s cooling system; the tower project was a major victory for Mount Hope Bay and the entire Narragansett Bay ecosystem. The cooling towers, whose massive size reflected the size of the environmental problems the plant caused, reduced demand on Mount Hope Bay’s resources, requiring 5 million gallons of water a day instead of a billion gallons. [For those that are math-challenged, that is a reduction of roughly 200 times the amount of overheated water pumped into Mount Hope Bay.]

The sad truth for many, including Save The Bay, was that: “The Brayton Point upgrades were too little, too late. By the time controls were put in place, the local population of winter flounder and other species were beyond recovery. With the added stress of climate change, it’s likely some species will never return. Today, the plant is closed and the towers are gone, along with the energy companies that profited by polluting our public resources.”

Caught in the devil’s bargain
Sea changes in energy policy take time, some would argue. But how long should it take? How much time do we have left to redress the damages done? To put the cooling towers’ implosion in a historical context, the Brayton Point coal-burning plant began operating in 1963, the same year that President John Kennedy was assassinated, 56 years ago.

There was no lack of “evidence” about the toxic threats from pollution, locally or nationally. Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson, had been published a year earlier, in September of 1962. A decade later, in 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection was created, two years after the first Earth Day in 1970.

In 1972, Randy Newman’s “Burn on, Big River” satirized how the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire in June of 1969, laden with oily wastes, chemicals and debris, something that was more than an act of God.

Now the Lord can make you tumble/
Lord can make you turn/
The Lord can make you overflow/
But the Lord can’t make you burn


When it came to energy policy, the basic choices were identified in 1976, when Amory Lovins published an article in Foreign Affairs, entitled, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken,” which argued that the U.S. had arrived at an important crossroads in its choice of energy policy – it could choose fossil fuels and nuclear fusion, and suffer the environmental consequences, or it could turn toward what Lovins called a softer path, toward renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Changes in attitude
What came to mind as I watched replays of the implosion was how resolute the utility industry, its protectors in state government, and federal regulators had been in keeping Big Coal power plants alive and functioning in Massachusetts – 22 years after the restructuring of the electric utility industry by the state in 1997 was supposed to have hastened the removal of Brayton Point and its brethren of filthy coal plants from the electric grid and created a competitive market for consumers to purchase electricity.

What the restructuring actually accomplished was far different from its stated public intentions: the consolidation of utilities into larger monopolies [can you say National Grid, the British-owned conglomerate] while at the same time loosening regulations, separating power plants from utility ownership, and extending the operating lives of coal plants and nuclear power plants.

I write this – with both humility and chagrin – as someone who once had been intimately involved in promoting the efforts to restructure the electric utility industry in Massachusetts, first as the communications director at the MA Division of Energy Resources [it’s now a Department] and then as the manager of marketing and education at the MA Renewable Energy Trust [it has since morphed into MA Clean Energy Center], which had received more than $250 million as part of the restructuring deal to promote the state’s transition to a renewable future – and is still funded by a surcharge on consumers’ monthly electric bills.

It was never easy being green at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the initial home of the Trust. The Trust’s first attempt at writing a plan for what to do had been farmed out to Bain Consulting, for political reasons, for which Bain was paid more than $1 million to write a plan that the firm never finished. [I was then tasked to rewrite the unfinished plan, not once but twice, but that is a much longer story.]

As much as the energy choices were always stark, consumers were never presented with stark images about the consequences of such choices; they were often kept in the dark, purposely.

I had asked: What if those choices were made visible to consumers? What if high-resolution images of acres of coal piled high next to coal-burning plants in Somerset, Mass., in Salem, Mass., and in Holyoke, Mass., were contrasted with existing neighborhoods of roof-tip photovoltaic panels in Gardner, Mass., or an operating wind farm in Princeton, Mass.? Would that tip the scales of public opinion?

Unheralded change
Today, the real revolution that is occurring in energy production, it seems to me, is still mostly unheralded and under-reported: the change in managing peak demand on the electric grid in New England, where behind-the-meter solar and wind has proven to be a game-changer, lowering and delaying peak demand in the summer, when it is highest and most costly, achieving great savings for all consumers on the electricity grid. Those numbers come from ISO-New England, the agency charged with managing the Big Grid.

Let’s do the numbers, as NPR’s “Marketplace” says:

During the summer of 2018, during the heat wave from June 29 through July 5, peak demand for electricity was cut by some 2,000 megawatts produced from behind-the-meter photovoltaic arrays on homes and businesses. The panels provided these 2,000 megawatts of electricity on a daily basis, lowering peak demand on the grid, and making the hour of peak demand occur later in the day.

“This reduces the number of hours that dirtier and more expensive peaker plants must run, avoiding fossil fuel emissions,” explained Joe LaRusso, in a thread of 22 tweets on July 20. “The result? Lower-cost electricity for all New England electric customers.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Behind the meter solar is transforming the utility market.”]

On Feb. 6, 2019, ISO New England, the region’s electricity grid operator, as part of its forward capacity market auction, awarded a bid to Sunrun to deliver 20 megawatts of energy capacity beginning in 2022 by aggregating its home solar and battery systems.

“This is a first for home solar and battery systems,” said Anne Hoskins, chief policy officer at Sunrun, a national solar aggregator, in a post announcing the successful bid. “[We] are now competing head-to-head against more polluting, centralized power plants in one of the largest electricity markets in the United States.”

While the 20 megawatts is but a small portion of the promised power procured by ISO New England, it marked the first time that a distributed source of electricity generated with solar panels and battery backups had been awarded such a bid at an auction. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Here comes the sun.”]

In Los Angeles, Sunrun is also touting its system of distributed electricity as an answer to the city’s future power needs. In a recently published study, Sunrun said that by 2030, its system of “roughly 75,000 homes with solar and batteries could generate approximately 295 megawatts, the equivalent to the amount of power from one of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power natural gas plants.”

City officials are drafting a new version of Boston’s climate action plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, as reported by ecoRI News. According to Carbon Free Boston, a report from the Boston Green Ribbon Commission and the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University, up to 15 percent of Boston’s electricity could be generated by rooftop solar panels [emphasis added] installed on buildings within city limits.

Last summer, environmental advocates and experts delivered a letter to Mayor Marty Walsh outlining their recommendations for Boston’s climate plan, including a requirement for new buildings to be built with solar panels on their roofs.

The question is: Will the R.I. General Assembly be willing to pursue a similar strategy, requiring all new building to be built with solar panels on their roofs?

[Editor’s note: Behind-the-meter solar is different than large utility-scale solar projects.]

Not cooler but much warmer

Everywhere you turn in Providence, it seems, there are the sights and sounds of the celebration of the innovation ecosystem and innovation economy, with its promise to breathe new life in a wave of future economic prosperity for Rhode Island on an innovative highway of progress.

New buildings, new complexes, new campuses, new hotels, and a new pedestrian bridge abound. Lost in translation is the fact that the new Providence Innovation and Design District, formerly known as the Jewelry District, home to the soon-to-open Wexford Innovation Complex, with anchor tenants that include Johnson & Johnson, Cambridge Innovation Center and Brown University, sits less than a mile from the Providence waterfront, where, as Frank Carini of ecoRI News reported: the Providence port is home to more than 3 million pounds of chemicals, home heating oil, jet fuel, diesel, and some 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas and has polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, total petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, formaldehyde, cyanide, asbestos, lead, ammonia, arsenic, and polychlorinated biphenyls trapped in its dirt and sediment.

“The Providence waterfront is one bad storm away from unleashing a flood of nastiness,” Carini warned in a May 1 story. How does that become part of the conversation around the emerging innovation ecosystem?

Reframing the discussion
Shell Oil Products’ US Terminal at 520 Allens Ave. in Providence is in the process of renewing their air quality permit, and two local groups, No LNG in PVD and the Washington Park Neighborhood Association [WPNA], are challenging that permit in a letter to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management on both environmental and public health grounds, as reported by Uprise RI’s Steve Ahlquist.

The letter is signed by Monica Huertas, director of No LNG in PVD and Linda Perri of the WPNA. Four state wide environmental groups – Climate Action RI, Nature’s Trust Rhode Island, Sierra Club/Rhode Island Chapter and Sunrise RI – have lent their endorsement and support, according to Uprise RI’s reporting.

“Business as usual at Shell Terminal is not acceptable to our community,” the letter says. “Air pollution from this facility is an ongoing environmental injustice. The draft permit should not be approved, and ideally a large high-risk fuel storage facility and major air polluter should not be allowed to operate in a high-density residential area that is also at risk of sea level rise and storm surge.”

On Friday, May 3, in a made-for-the-media event, Gov. Gina Raimondo and Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee went to Newport to highlight a legislative push to provide the state better tools “to demand greater accountability” from National Grid, following the emergency natural gas supply outage that occurred in January, during one of the coldest weeks of the year, that left thousands of Newport residents without heat.

What has yet to be determined, however, is what actually caused the emergency: Was it cold weather? Was it a problem resulting from a natural gas pipeline accident in Ohio? Was it a valve malfunction in Weymouth, MA? Was the emergency related to what happened in the fall in Merrimack Valley, where pressure in the pipeline supplies became too great and houses exploded?

The legislation and the made-for-the-media event, however, did not address the larger, looming issues of dependency on the fossil fuel industry and big utility companies to dictate our future energy choices.

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