By George Harvey
The Mount Tom Power Station, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, went into operation in 1960. As it aged and other coal-burning plants were replaced, it became one of the dirtiest power plants in New England. Over the course of several years at the end if its life, activists rallied to protest it and call for its closure. Two local groups that were heavily involved were Neighbor to Neighbor and Toxics Action Center.
As it happened, while it aged, its underlying economics also declined. Cheap natural gas was an enemy that proved as implacable as activists, but even it was being challenged successfully by low-cost renewable power sources, such as solar and wind power. As the end of its time drew near, the Mount Tom Power Station no longer produced base-load power and was only started up in anticipation of high electric demands.
Finally, in 2014, GDF Suez North America, the plant’s owner, decided that the economics of coal were no longer viable and closed the Mount Tom Station for good. Many people in the area welcomed the news of the shutdown and the less polluted air they would be breathing.
When a coal plant closes, new opportunities almost always arise. Some plants are converted to burn natural gas or biomass products. In this case, however, the entire plant was getting old, and the elements that are common to different kinds of thermal plants, such as a boiler and cooling systems, were not worth saving. But the electric lines, which are not inexpensive, are still good and still have life ahead of them. This means that any economically competitive use of those lines could be a possibility for the site. Some people pushed for a large solar farm, as the site could have had a solar array of six to eleven megawatts. Other ideas included installing a bio-digester on the site along with a smaller solar array. There was talk of using part of the 128-acre property as a public park or for agriculture.
GDF Suez, which was renamed Engie in 2015, decided that at the very least a solar farm could be built. A ground-breaking took place in October 2016 for construction of what will be one of the largest solar systems in the state at 5.76 megawatts. With over 17,000 solar panels and a cost of about $10 million, where there had once been a coal-burning power plant, a solar farm was being established. It will provide enough power for about 1,000 typical homes in central Massachusetts.
The actual installation was contracted to the Fischbach & Moore Electric Group. This company has its headquarters in Dorchester, Massachusetts and provides services throughout the United States and overseas. The electrical connections were undertake by a subcontractor, Collins Electric, which is based in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Electricity generated by the solar farm will be sold to the city of Holyoke under a twenty-year power purchase agreement. Holyoke Gas and Electric will buy the power at a price below market rates through the period of the agreement providing power to its customers at the lowest possible price.
The old coal plant paid about $600,000 in taxes and employed 28 people, both benefits to the economy of Holyoke that were lost when economics forced it to close. The new solar farm will only pay about a quarter as much in taxes, and it has only two local employees, as operations are done remotely from Fitchburg. It should be remembered, however, that the solar farm only occupies a small portion of the old coal plant’s site, and other facilities will almost certainly be installed there. In the meantime, everyone breathes a bit easier.