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From Dirty Coal to Solar Farm, One of New England's Worst Polluters Makes the Switch

Energy

One of the worst polluters in New England, the Mount Tom Power Station in Holyoke, Massachusetts, is making the switch from coal to solar. The plant's owner, Paris-based Engie, shuttered the coal-powered generating plant in 2014 and broke ground this month on a 5.76-megawatt solar array—enough to power 1,000 homes.

Aerial view of Mount Tom coal-fired power station. MassLive

The Mount Tom coal station, which went online in 1960, was associated with perennially poor air quality in the Holyoke area north of Springfield. The grassroots New England group, Toxics Action Center, had been organizing to shutter the aging plant and working with local residents to plan for redevelopment of the site.

"This victory came after more than five decades spent inhaling soot and struggling to breathe, and more than five years of organizing to retire and repurpose the Mount Tom coal plant," Claire B.W. Miller, lead community organizer for the Toxics Action Center, told Rhode Island-based EcoRI News.

Engie is a $76 billion global energy company with 155,000 employees, headed by Isabelle Kocher. In an interview with Le Parisien, she said, "Renewables are revolutionizing the energy industry. I believe that solar power particularly will transform our world. Not only is it available in unlimited quantities, but it is increasingly becoming economically—and therefore financially—profitable to generate and use."

The solar installation in Massachusetts will cover 22 acres with 17,000 solar panels. It will sell energy to Holyoke Gas & Electric, which serves 18,000 customers.

"Massachusetts continues to be a national leader in solar installations as we build a clean energy future that reduces costs to ratepayers," Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Judith Judson said.

The state recently set an ambitious energy storage target amounting to 600 megawatts or five percent of peak load. Energy storage creates system-wide cost savings and better integrates renewable energy generation sources. Massachusetts, California and Oregon are the only states developing energy storage plans.

The Mount Tom Power Station isn't the first coal-fired power plant to be converted to a solar farm. A joint venture of Sun Edison Canadian Construction and the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation are constructing a 44-megawatt solar farm on the shores of Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada, inside the former home of one of the largest coal-fired power plants in North American.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

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If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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