Frequently Asked Questions
Why do we need to phase out coal?
Coal is Dirty and Deadly. When coal is burned, it fills the air with carbon dioxide, smog, mercury, lead and toxic soot. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the health damages caused from one coal-fired power plant average $156 million annually. These damages present themselves through health impacts ranging from asthma attacks, heart attacks, emergency room visits, learning disabilities and brain damage, premature death and lost work days. Even coal plants that have added pollution controls continue to cause serious health effects. The Clean Air Task Force published a 2010 report showing that pollution from coal-fired power plants causes 251 deaths, 211 hospital admissions, and 471 heart attacks in Massachusetts every year. Airborne mercury pollution in Massachusetts is so significant that the Department of Public Health has issued a statewide advisory cautioning women of child-bearing age, pregnant women and young children to not eat fresh water fish caught within our borders due to mercury contamination from toxic rain.
And whether it comes from a strip mine in Colombia or from mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, coal is dirty and deadly. Every year, coal miners die—in tragic mining accidents or from years of breathing toxic dust and fumes. Communities are destroyed and wildlife and ecosystems devastated.
Where does Massachusetts’s coal come from?
Massachusetts relies exclusively on coal imports. As recently as 2008, the state ranked third -- behind Alabama and Florida -- in spending on foreign coal imports, over $206 million in 2008 alone. In 2011, 59% of coal imported to Massachusetts came from the Appalachian region while 41% came from Colombia. Appalachian coal is mined in the most biodiverse region of the country and frequently obtained via a mining practice called Mountaintop Removal (MTR) whereby explosives are used to blow the tops of mountains to facilitate ready access to coal deposits. To date MTR has devastated large areas of the Appalachian region. Colombian coal on the other hand, particularly coal sourced from the Cerrejón Zona Norte Mine in Colombia, has been linked to widespread human rights violations against indigenous people as well as environmental devastation.
What’s so important about 2020?
Coal-Fired Power is one of the single largest contributors to climate change pollution in Massachusetts. Brayton Point, in Somerset, Massachusetts is the largest single stationary source of carbon dioxide pollution in all of New England. Massachusetts has been a leader in fighting climate change, in part because it stands to suffer devastating consequences from rising sea levels and rising temperatures. In 2008, Massachusetts passed the Global Warming Solutions Act which requires the Commonwealth to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020. In 2009, coal-fired power plants emitted 8.7 million tons of CO2, almost 50% of the total emissions from the electric sector in Massachusetts despite providing only 23% of the electricity.
Don’t We Need Coal to Keep the Lights On?
No. Coal-Fired Power is Outdated and Obsolete, and as a result, the regional electricity system is relying on it less and less to meet demand. As community leaders increasingly call for 21st century energy solutions, aging coal plants across the country are gradually being phased out. Thanks to excess power generation nationwide, increasingly “smart” and interlinked regional grids, and new investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, we can accomplish coal phase-out with “no capacity shortages.”
In 2010, NRG shut down Somerset Station and Dominion announced that it would close Salem Harbor Station. What is driving this change? Most of these plants have been operated far beyond their expected lifespan of 30-40 years, and the resulting losses in efficiency and the need for upgrades makes it difficult for them to compete with newer, more efficient power sources. The price of natural gas has also been at a historic low, which means that coal power plants have been operating far less. Coal plants were built to operate around-the-clock, not to ramp up and down to meet demand. When they are called upon to start-up and shut-down more quickly, they operate less efficiently and have a difficult time meeting emission limitations.
A diverse power portfolio presents strong options for power generation and energy savings. Renewable power such as wind and solar, and energy efficiency, can replace our reliance on dirty, costly fuels. A 2008 report from the US DOE outlines a path for the nation to go 20% wind-powered within twenty years - thereby stabilizing energy costs, increasing rural and coastal tax bases, promoting water conservation, and investing in green jobs through an “indigenous” energy source. Massachusetts can make great progress with wind power by taking advantage of both on-shore and offshore projects.
Energy efficiency “has enormous potential to cut power demand—by 23 percent below projected levels by 2020.” In the Commonwealth, programs such as Mass Save equip residents, businesses, and industrial customers with the tools necessary to weatherize buildings and install efficient utility systems. Funding channels established by the Green Communities Act have aided municipalities in taking their own actions for efficient development and energy retrofits. Largely due to successful implementation of cross-sector GCA programs, Massachusetts was ranked the country’s most energy-efficient state in 2011 - and efficiency in Massachusetts continues to grow.
Our economy has no future with coal, and coal has no place in our economy. As its market share falls and clean, renewable power proliferates, coal is quickly becoming financially unviable.
How Many Coal Plants are There in Massachusetts?
Two down, and two to go. Somerset Station closed in 2010, and two coal units at Salem Harbor Station closed at the end of 2011; the last two coal units are slated to close in June 2014. The remaining coal plants in Massachusetts are Brayton Point Power Station and Mt. Tom Generation Station. Brayton Point, the largest coal-fired power plant in New England, is still operating in Somerset, Massachusetts. This power station has been operating since 1963 and is owned by Dominion Energy, a Virginia-based corporation. Mt. Tom, located in Holyoke, Massachusetts, has been online since 1960 and is owned by First Light Power Resources, a subsidiary of the French company GDF Suez. Every minute that these plants operate, they put out pollution that harms everyone who breathes the emissions-ridden air. Children, the elderly, and those with respiratory disease are particularly vulnerable.
 EIA Schedule 923 data
 EPA Greenhouse Gas Program, Reporting Data for Large Facilities, 2010 available at http://ghgdata.epa.gov/ghgp/main.do#/facilityDetail/?q=Facility
 Energy Information Administration, State Electricity Profiles, Table 5, Electric Power Industry Generation by Primary Energy Source 1990-2010 available at http://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/massachusetts/.
 Bradley, M.J., S.F. Tierney, C.E. Van Atten, P.J. Hubbard, A. Saha, and C. Jenks. 2010. Ensuring a clean, modern electric generating fleet while maintaining electric system reliability. Available at http://www.mjbradley.com/sites/default/files/MJBAandAnalysisGroupReliabilityReportAugust2010.pdf
 Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). 2008. 20% wind energy by 2030: Increasing wind energy’s contribution to U.S. electricity supply. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy. Available at http://www1.eere.energy.gov/wind/pdfs/41869.pdf
 Union of Concerned Scientists, A Risky Proposition: The Financial Hazards of New Investments in Coal Plants (Mar. 2011) available at http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/smart-energy-solutions/decrease-coal/financial-hazards-of-coal-plant-investments.html
 Union of Concerned Scientists, A Risky Proposition