Holyoke’s Path Away From Coal
by Ed Burke, Dennis K. Burke Inc.
Is Holyoke a model for communities shifting to renewables? The city of Holyoke, Massachusetts is enjoying a little shine in the national spotlight these days. The city is getting high marks for its transition from home of the state’s last coal-fired plant to home of the state’s largest solar farm. Their experience could be a useful model as more cities and states set their clean energy goals.
Generating electricity for more than half a century, the Mount Tom coal-fired plant in the city of Holyoke had local residents concerned about what was going into the air. Residents had been complaining for years about the plant’s emissions and health issues. But it was the area’s high asthma rates — twice as high as the rest of the state — that accelerated local community activists to try and set Holyoke’s path away from coal.
Right around that time, there was an outdated coal-fired plant in Salem, Massachusetts that was planning to close and convert to a natural gas-fired plant. That was something the Holyoke community decided they really didn’t want either. They recognized that the time had come to actively prepare for a future quite different from the past.
“It became inevitable that the coal plant would close at some point given the economics of the coal industry,” says Alex Morse, mayor of Holyoke. “But the push from activists helped the process move more quickly, and likely more equitably.”
By 2010, the plant’s profits were shrinking while state and federal emissions rules made it even more expensive to operate.
A Plan In Hand
A key to Holyoke’s success was that organization happened early – years before the decision to shut down Mount Tom was official. Having a city-owned electric utility also helped because profit is a lower priority than serving the community.
Community groups first launched a campaign in 2010 and within a year, had built a coalition of hundreds of people and businesses.
The company operating the plant, GDF Suez (since renamed Engie) did not respond at first. Eventually the company began talking with community members, who believed that renewable energy would be the best use of the site.
They also argued that workers should get good severance packages, longtime workers should be able to access retirement benefits when the plant closed, and younger workers should get training in new fields. All of that eventually happened.
The mayor said securing a state grant for a reuse study of the 128-acre Mount Tom site was key to closing the plant in a “responsible way.” That report allowed for all the interested groups to “come up with a set of principles that most folks in the community could support.” It also included getting crucial approvals from the stakeholders in order to have planning well underway when the plant eventually shut down.
The planning required cooperation among all of the stakeholders – residents, businesses, community activists, plant owners and employees, as well as city and state officials.
“The solar project was already sort of a community-agreed-upon value, a goal that everybody could get behind. We got ahead of the curve, in that sense, and we started that plan even before the coal plant shut down. We have an ambition of being a carbon-neutral community,” added Mayor Morse.
In 2014, the coal plant, which had been running intermittently in its last year to provide power at times of peak demand, finally shut down. Massachusetts no longer had any fully operating coal plants. But Holyoke was ready for the opportunity to begin the community’s transition to cleaner power.
By 2017, 17,000 solar panels were installed and running.
In late 2018, Engie installed 3 megawatts of battery storage on the site to help provide energy even when it’s not sunny (Editor’s Note: see “Massachusetts Envisions Huge Growth in Energy Storage,” Oil & Energy Volume 20/Issue 1, January/February 2018). These storage units take electricity generated from wind and solar installations and release it to the grid when it’s needed. That helps keep electricity rates low.
State and federal support was critical for a small city like Holyoke. The battery storage facility was paid for in part through a state grant that will also be used to schedule, measure and analyze how well it’s working.
This year, the coal plant’s smokestacks will be coming down, and the rest of the site will be developed for new industry.
Holyoke Gas & Electric, the city-owned utility that sells electricity to Holyoke’s residents, now gets roughly 90 percent of that power from carbon-free sources, including nuclear energy. More than two-thirds of it comes from renewable sources like solar, hydro and wind.
Clean Energy Economics
When Mount Tom was operating at its peak, the coal-fired plant had about 80 people working there with good paying jobs. By the time the plant closed in 2014, that number had dropped to 28. Longtime workers were able to retire and got their pensions while younger workers were given equitable severance packages.
Clean energy is now a $13 billion industry in Massachusetts. Its workforce has grown 84 percent since 2010. The sector now employs more than 110,000 workers, or three percent of the state’s total workforce.