ROCKLAND, Maine — Natural gas-fired power plants, such as the one proposed here, have been met with welcoming arms in some communities and strong opposition in others.
Rockland Energy Center Inc. has proposed building a $200 million, 76-megawatt combined cycle cogeneration plant that would generate electricity for the electrical grid and low-cost steam to heat local industries. The Rockland City Council voted last week to grant the company a nonbinding option to buy about 18 acres of city land where City Hall and public services are located.
Rockland Energy is a subsidiary of Boston-based Energy Management Inc., which has developed several natural-gas fired power plants around New England, including one in Rumford.
Rumford Town Manager John Madigan said the 265-megawatt combined cycle natural gas-fired power plant has been good for the community in the nearly 20 years it has been in town. The facility is located in the town’s Industrial Park next to the natural gas line and a large electrical transmission line.
Madigan said there was no opposition when the plant went before the planning board, and there have been no complaints from residents since it began operating.
Rumford Power has a tax increment financing district arrangement in which the town nets $1 million annually in property taxes.
Rockland Energy spokesman Evan Coleman said at last week’s Rockland City Council meeting that the Rockland plant would be similar to one Energy Management built in 1999 in Dighton, Massachusetts.
Dighton Energy Facility is a 187-megawatt combined cycle natural gas-fired power plant.
Dighton Selectman Patrick Menges said the plant has been a good neighbor. The property where the plant is located was rezoned as industrial for the project. Menges said there are a few homes nearby, but it has not caused any problems.
He said the property the company purchased included a house built in 1712 that was the home of the community’s first minister. When the company needed to move the home, it painstakingly took it apart, board by board, and had it rebuilt at another location.
The company also has paid for a sewer extension for a school and paid to have a road repaved.
The company pays the town $694,000 in annual property taxes.
Dighton is located in southeastern Massachusetts, near the Rhode Island border. The estimated population of Dighton in 2013 was 7,214, according to the U.S. Census — about the same size as Rockland, which had an estimated population of 7,209 that same year.
But not all plants have been greeted as economic boons for communities.
In Westfield, Massachusetts, Pioneer Valley Energy Center proposed construction of a $400 million natural-gas fired power plant that would have produced electricity. That project received its federal and state environmental permits in 2012 but was still met with opposition from residents.
Westfield Superintendent of Buildings Jonathan Flagg said the plant was never built. He said he knows there was opposition from residents who did not feel it was a good fit for the community but he does not know what led to the company’s decision not to build.
The proposed 400-megawatt plant would have generated $2 million of annual property taxes to the town of 41,000 residents, located in western Massachusetts.
In Chelsea, Massachusetts, Energy Management Inc. first proposed a plant in that city in 2007 that would produce electricity by burning low-sulfur diesel fuel. Neighbors and the president of Chelsea City Council at the time fought the plan because of concerns over air pollution.
Councilor Leo Robinson said the company withdrew its plan in the face of the opposition. The proposed plant would have been located within 500 feet of a playground and within 700 feet of an elementary school.
Robinson said he was interested in hearing more about the proposed project but environmental activists came in and worked hard to block the plant.
The Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental organization, has been involved in the permitting of some natural gas-fired plants in New England, including one in Salem in which a coal-fired plant was converted to natural gas.
Greg Cunningham, a vice president and director of the clean energy and climate change program for the Conservation Law Foundation, said there are positives and negatives to natural gas-fired power plants. He said such plants are more efficient and reduce the amount of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air compared to coal-powered plants.
But natural gas plants add to carbon dioxide emissions, Cunningham said. He said with Maine and New England having a goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050, more natural gas plants would not help achieve that goal.
“We need to meet that goal to avoid the serious consequences of climate change,” Cunningham said.
In the Salem project, Cunningham pointed out that the foundation intervened and managed to get an agreement in which the plant gradually will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions until it reaches zero by 2050. He said while current technology is not available to have zero carbon dioxide emissions from a natural gas-fired plant, the technology could be available in 35 years.
The environmental organization official also voiced concern about over reliance on natural gas to generate electricity in New England. He said 52 percent of electricity in the region is generated by natural gas-fired plants. Any additional plants would increase that percentage. He said that if natural gas becomes too expensive or in short supply, that could create a problem for the region’s electricity grid.
The best approach, he said, would be to invest in energy efficiency. By reducing demand for electricity, fewer plants will be needed.
Opposition to the proposed plant in Rockland initially led to the City Council denying the land option to Rockland Energy Center. Many were critical of the council for the speed of the process since the vote came just a week after the proposal was made public. Others had environmental concerns.
The matter was reconsidered just two days later, however, with all four of the councilors present agreeing to grant the option in order to allow for further study of the project and negotiations with Rockland Energy.
The City Council has agreed that no sale of the city-owned land where the company wants to build can occur without approval of voters at a referendum. No sale could occur before Aug. 31, according to the council-approved option.
The Rockland project also would need approvals from the city planning board, Maine Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before the plant could be built.