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Mass. plant sale shows coal's challenge in region

Associated Press Modified: September 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm •  Published: September 9, 2012
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BOSTON (AP) — The future of the massive Brayton Point Power Station in southeastern Massachusetts is again in flux, just seven years after it last changed owners.

And environmentalists say the bleak future in New England of the coal it burns is the key reason why.

In 2000, coal was the third-most-used fuel for electricity in New England, accounting for 18 percent of the region's power. Now, it produces just 6 percent of regional power, according to grid operator ISO New England.

A variety of factors has reduced its imprint, industry watchers say: pressure from anti-pollution activists, the expense of upgrading older plants and regional energy preferences. But the biggest influence is the low price of natural gas, something the industry itself acknowledges.

"Certainly as long as natural gas prices remain low, the industry will face challenges," said Lisa Miller of the American Coalition of Clean Coal Electricity.

Coal's bit role in New England's energy production is different than in the nation as a whole, where it accounted for nearly 45 percent of all power produced in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Owner Dominion said Thursday that it put the Brayton Point plant in Somerset on the market primarily because it's focusing on businesses in states with regulated energy markets — unlike Massachusetts. In regulated markets, infrastructure costs can more easily be directly passed on to ratepayers. But dismal projected earnings for Brayton Point speak to coal's increasing struggle to remain competitive, despite its history as a source of affordable power and the tens of billions of dollars Miller notes that the industry has spent on making coal burn cleaner.

Activists in New England who've worked for years to marginalize coal as dirty, damaging source of power, say now that it's down, they're going to keep it from rebounding.

"A legion of active, knowledge advocates ... are going to prevent that from happening by using every tool available," said Jonathan Peress of the Conservation Law Foundation.

While natural gas is cheap everywhere, coal plant owners in New England must figure out how to compete with it while also maintaining often older facilities that need anti-pollution upgrades to meet tougher environmental standards.

"The rising environmental and economic costs associated with oil and coal have made it difficult for older power plants to compete against generators that use cheaper, cleaner fuel sources," said Marcia Blomberg of ISO New England.

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