Energy to power 1,000 Holyoke homes coming from new $10 million Mount Tom Solar Farm



The $10 million Mount Tom Solar Farm with 17,208 panels will be installed by late December beside a now-closed coal-burning plant on Northampton Street with energy to power 1,000 homes, officials said Thursday.

“It’s a great event. It’s a great day,” said Frank Demaille, president and CEO of ENGIE North America.

The company formerly called GDF SUEZ Energy North America held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the solar facility, which will occupy 22 acres of a 128-acre site at 200 Northampton St. beside the Connecticut River. Construction began this month, spokeswoman Julie Vitek said.

GDF SUEZ shut down the coal plant in late December 2014 after years of the facility operating only sporadically. Twenty-eight employees lost jobs.

Changes in energy habits led to the closing, as officials have said burning coal to produce energy was too expensive in the face of the cheaper alternative of natural gas.

Demaille referred to the old-world-to-new-world transformation of the company building a solar farm in the shadow of the property’s signature smoke stack and coal-burning facility, which officials said will be demolished beginning in the spring.

“It’s a landmark for us,” Demaille said.

Two employees will work at the new Mount Tom Solar Farm but the facility will be run remotely by a power station in Fitchburg. The company operates solar facilities that way in Northfield, Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada, a spokeswoman said previously.

ENGIE is focusing such innovation efforts on the United States and Canada — territories where it employs 3,500 people — and additional projects here are possible. The city and the Holyoke Gas and Electric Department (HGE) have proven to be good partners, Demaille said.

“You have to work with the community, the mayor and his team, the local utility and his team,” he said.

The 5.764 megawatts of electricity generated by the solar farm will be sold to HGE at or below market rates to ensure customers’ rates stay as low as possible, HGE Manager James M. Lavelle said.

The solar farm will produce enough power to supply 1,000 homes, he said.

“We’re really excited about this project …,” Lavelle said.

The city will receive $146,000 in tax revenue in 2017 from the solar farm. The company expects to pay about $28,000 on the solar panels and related equipment as a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), $78,000 on the land the solar facility will occupy and $40,000 in relation to the existing coal-burning structure at the Mount Tom Power Station, spokeswoman Carol Churchill said

Holyoke Mayor Alex B. Morse said decisions by legislators and work of people in the community and activists led to planning on how to deal with the demise of the coal-burning facility.

State Rep. Aaron M. Vega, D-Holyoke, when he was a member of the City Council, filed an order to establish a community advisory group that began studying how the coal-burning plant property could be redeveloped, he said.

Michael R. Knapik, when he was a state senator, secured $100,000 from the state to help Holyoke study reuse options for the site. That was so the city could be prepared depending on what direction the then-GDF SUEZ Energy North America was planning, he said.

Morse also credited activist group Neighbor to Neighbor with keeping attention on the coal-burning plant property.

“We wanted to make sure we took a pro-active stance,” Morse said.

He added, “It’s music to my ears that hopefully this is the first of many investments in our community.”

Judith Judson, commissioner of the state Department of Energy Resources, said the solar project here meets the state’s goals of providing affordable electricity; generating clean energy, that is, energy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere; and offer a safe energy structure.

“It’s really exciting to see this project,” Judson said.

Members of groups like Neighbor to Neighbor and Toxics Action Center planned to celebrate the installation of the solar-power facility and its status as the replacement of the the coal-burning plant with a party after the groundbreaking ceremony at Fiesta Cafe Main Street.

Neighbor to Neighbor’s Lena Entin addressed concerns that such a party could be seen as insensitive to coal-plant workers who lost jobs. The group’s focus was the breathing and other health problems from exposure to coal-burning and always included calls for the employees to receive training for other positions and strong severance packages, she said.

“We are celebrating that we’re moving from burning coal, which contributes to asthma and respiratory problems and even early death, to clean energy. We too are devastated about the job losses,” Entin said.

Concerns about breathing difficulties, kidney disease, high blood pressure and other health problems related to exposure to coal-burning plants prompted activists for years to push for the Mount Tom Power Station and other coal plants to end such operations and switch gears to different forms of energy production. Mount Tom Power Station officials said over the years the plant heeded state and federal emission standards.

The reason the Mount Tom Solar Farm will be subject to a PILOT instead of straight taxation is related to the solar component. The solar panels, like other equipment on a business property (merchandise, furnishings, tools, animals, equipment), would be subject to taxation as personal property under state tax laws, said Marcos A. Marrero, director of the city Department of Planning and Economic Development.

The issue with solar equipment is, at the outset, it is valued so high that the tax bill the first few years can kill a solar project. But solar equipment depreciates quickly, so taxable income from the city’s perspective would be very low after only a few years. So establishing a PILOT of $5,000 per megawatt ensures a steady tax revenue for the city from such a business, he said.

The shuttering of the coal-burning plant was a blow to the municipal budget of this city, which has nearly a third of its population of 40,000 living below the federal poverty line.
For decades, the city could count on more than $600,000 in property tax revenue from the coal plant.

Limits on what future development could occupy the site left few options, said officials such as Marrero who studied possibilities. Site restrictions included its high risk for flooding, being adjacent to the river, presence of endangered species and government regulations.

Activists to party after solar-farm groundbreaking at former coal plant in Holyoke


via MassLive:

HOLYOKE — Activists who pushed for years to end the coal-burning operation at the Mount Tom Power Station based on health concerns are so happy the plant owner is building a solar farm, they plan to party.

“Five years after Action for a Healthy Holyoke! began organizing for responsible retirement of the Mount Tom coal plant, the company is breaking ground on a solar farm at the site. We will be popping some champagne, eating food and sharing reflections on the work,” a press release from activist groups said.

Members of groups like Neighbor to Neighbor and Toxics Action Center will celebrate on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at Fiesta Cafe at 305 Main St., the press release said.

That will be after plant-owner ENGIE North America, formerly GDF SUEZ Energy North America, holds a groundbreaking at 10:30 a.m. for the Mount Tom Solar Farm.

The solar power facility will be on 22 acres of the 128-acre site along the Connecticut River at 200 Northampton St. near the former coal plant.

Two employees will work at the new Mount Tom Solar Farm but it will be run remotely by a power station in Fitchburg, company spokeswoman Carol Churchill said. The company runs solar facilities this way in Northfield, Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada.

The coal plant operated only sporadically in its later years and closed in late December 2014, putting 28 people out of work. The plant closed because burning coal to produce energy was too expensive in the face of the cheaper alternative of natural gas, officials have said.

Concerns about breathing difficulties, kidney disease, high blood pressure and other health problems related to exposure to coal-burning plants prompted activists for years to push for the Mount Tom Power Station and other coal plants to end such operations and switch gears to different forms of energy production. Mount Tom Power Station officials said over the years the plant heeded state and federal emission standards.

Demolition of the buildings and smokestack used for coal burning is scheduled to begin in the spring, Churchill said.

The Mount Tom Solar Farm will consist of 17,208 solar panels. Solar panels are devices that convert light into electricity.

The new facility will produce 5.764 megawatts of electricity. The strength of solar energy varies from state to state based on average sunshine, average household energy consumption, temperature and wind, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) of Washington, D.C.

The current national average of homes powered by one megawatt of solar power is 164, the SEIA said.




SWAMPSCOTT — Protesters camped outside Gov. Charlie Baker’s home Sunday to demand that he protect youth with clean and safe energy.

About 30 activists from organizations, including 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future and Neighbor to Neighbor, went to Baker’s Monument Avenue home with signs and megaphones. They wanted to present him with a Father’s Day card and ask that he support clean energy rather than gas pipelines and the taxes needed to build them.

“We really wanted to highlight the nature of Charlie Baker as a father,” said Craig Altemose, 350 Mass senior advisor. “This is an opportunity for him to show himself as a caretaker for the Commonwealth.”

Prior to making their way to Swampscott, the activists also staged a rally outside House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s Winthrop home.

Police directed the protesters away from Baker’s home to the gazebo park area down the road, where their permit for the event was valid.

The groups held a public meeting at Lynn City Hall last month to express fear that the suspended $3.3 million Kinder Morgan pipeline, which would have run from New York through Lynnfield, West Peabody and Danvers to Dracut, would resume and threaten the city’s drinking water.

The rally focused on Texas-based Spectra Energy Partners’ Access Northeast, and its plans to expand its pipeline in southern Massachusetts. Plans include a natural gas compressor station in Weymouth and a metering and regulation station in West Roxbury.

While the project won’t reach the North Shore, activists urged Baker to oppose taxes that would appear on utility bills to finance construction of the pipeline expansion, Altemose said.

“We’re calling on the governor not to go forward with the pipeline tax,” Altemose said.

Attorney General Maura Healey has opposed the pipeline tariff and Baker hasn’t clearly stated if he thinks the tax is necessary, he added.

Former Gloucester City Councilor Jay Gustaferro said the public shouldn’t pay for a pipeline to export gas from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts.

Turner Bledsoe, co-founder of Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station, said methane from fracking is driving climate change and is 100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

“If we’re going to save this planet, we need to stop the expansion,” Bledsoe said.

It was unclear whether Baker was home at the time. He did not come outside to talk with the protesters.

N2N In the News: Massachusetts repeals automatic license suspension for drug crimes



BOSTON — Anyone who lost their license because they were convicted of a drug crime in Massachusetts can now get their license back.

Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law on Wednesday repealing the automatic license suspension of anyone convicted of a drug crime and the fine that goes along with it. The repeal is effective immediately.

“One of the big problems we face in criminal justice is reentry, the ability for people who made a mistake, who paid their dues, to find their way back into a productive life with purpose,” Baker said. “The lack of a driver’s license, it should be obvious to everybody, is a huge impediment to somebody’s ability to find work and find purpose.”

State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, called the law one of the most important bills he has voted on in his first year in the Legislature. “It’s going to help so many people try to reinvent their lives, to regenerate their thoughts and actually make something successful for themselves,” Gonzalez said.

The automatic license suspension was established in 1989 as part of the national War on Drugs. Under that law, anyone convicted of a drug-related crime, whether or not it related to a motor vehicle, had his license suspended for up to five years. The offender had to pay a license reinstatement fine of at least $500.

The new law eliminates the license suspension for most drug crimes, including the possession and sale of drugs. It keeps a five-year license suspension in place for anyone convicted of trafficking in cocaine, fentanyl, heroin or other opiates, although someone convicted of these offenses can apply for a hardship license. The law repeals the license reinstatement fine.

Records of suspensions will be shielded from public access, beginning 60 days from now.

A judge can still suspend someone’s license for a crime related to driving.

They did the crime, they paid their time and now they are going to rejoin society.”

Similar bills were introduced for the past three legislative sessions, but they never made it through the Legislature. This time, the bills had support from Attorney General Maura Healey and several sheriffs and district attorneys, in addition to a coalition of labor, religious groups and liberal organizing groups calling itself Jobs Not Jails. Support in the House and the Senate was bipartisan, and the final bill passed both bodies unanimously.

Advocates for the bill said removing the automatic license suspension will allow former prisoners to more easily reintegrate into society by getting a job and supporting their families.

Jafet Robles, a single father and organizer for Neighbor to Neighbor, a Springfield organizing group, had his license suspended for a drug crime. “I faced a lot of barriers upon my release,” Robles said.

Robles said the new law will knock down one of the barriers people face. “We don’t want drugs in our community, but when someone finishes their time, we feel it does the state better when we allow him to get his license and reintegrate back into society,” Robles said. “When people don’t get their license and they have nothing to live for, they’re more likely to result in a life of crime.”

Olga Pendraza, a leader in Neighbor to Neighbor, said the law will allow her to take a job that otherwise would require a two-hour bus commute at night. “This victory brings us one key step closer to liberation from a system that perpetuates injustice,” Pendraza said.

Cassandra Bensahih, director of Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement in Worcester, called the law “a real life changer” that “will promote job security and dignity to those of us who have already paid for their mistakes.”

Advocates and numerous lawmakers attended the bill signing. State Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, a long-time advocate for the bill, said the new law will prevent ex-convicts from driving without a license and then getting more fines. “We are saying they did the crime, they paid their time and now they are going to rejoin society with some of the tools that are really important for them,” Chandler said.

Several lawmakers stressed that this is the first step in a larger criminal justice reform process that state policymakers are involved in. Massachusetts is currently participating in the Council of State Government’s Justice Reinvestment program, in which a task force analyzes data to determine how the state can reduce recidivism, lower costs and improve public safety.



LYNN — Despite being suspended last month, activists fear the Kinder Morgan pipeline will resume and threaten the city’s drinking water.

The proposed $3.3 billion natural gas pipeline project would have run from New York through Lynnfield, West Peabody and Danvers to Dracut.

Neighbor to Neighbor and 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future hosted a public meeting at City Hall on Tuesday to discuss risks to Lynn’s water supply from a possible revival of the project.

Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, said the pipe would have gone through the Ipswich River. He said water is pumped from the river into the five ponds or reservoirs in Lynn, which then goes into the city’s drinking supply.

Paul Coombs, of Neighbor to Neighbor, said it is “outrageous” that the company would build a pipeline through 11 miles of the Ipswich River watershed. He said much of the natural gas would travel across the region and sold overseas.

“Currently, we have some of the best water in the country and we certainly don’t want to sacrifice that so some big company can make a lot of money,” Coombs said.

The two community groups said they are also concerned with leaks in the city’s gas distribution system. Lynn has had 272 unrepaired gas leaks since 1992, they said.

“We found out that a significant amount of gas is already being lost in the infrastructure,” Coombs said.

They argue that most of the gas projected to be delivered to Massachusetts through the proposed pipeline is only a little less than the amount lost from those existing gas leaks.

Castonguay said he is concerned that if a proposed gas pipeline infrastructure tariff by the Gov. Charlie Baker administration is enacted on Beacon Hill, the project, to be built by Tennessee Gas Pipeline, will resume. If approved, the Department of Public Utilities could pass along some of the cost of pipeline construction to electric customers.

“We’re very concerned still because this is working its way through the legislature,” Castonguay said.

N2N In the News: Holyoke protest targets utility bill surcharge dubbed ‘pipeline tax’ by opponents



HOLYOKE — Armed with signs and flyers from a statewide advocacy campaign, a small group in a downtown park Saturday spoke out against a proposed surcharge on Massachusetts ratepayers’ utility bills that would finance a new natural gas pipeline.

Opponents have dubbed the utility bill surcharge a “pipeline tax” because, while not technically a tax, it would be a mandatory fee applied to the bills of Eversource and National Grid customers. Approved by state regulators last fall, it is currently the subject of a legal challenge before the state’s highest court.

The pipeline in question, Access Northeast, would fuel gas-fired power plants in the eastern part of the state. The expansion of an existing Algonquin Gas Transmission line, and the creation of new compressor and storage facilities, is proposed by Spectra Energy Partners, which includes the investment arms of Eversource and National Grid.

Around 50 percent of the state’s electricity generation is gas-fired, and energy boosters say pipeline bottlenecks threaten grid reliability and cause high energy costs across New England.

However, the protesters — organized locally by Neighbor To Neighbor, an advocacy group with branches in Boston, Lynn, Springfield, Worcester and Holyoke — said the proposed pipeline funding plan would cost Massachusetts ratepayers $3 billion and hurt poor people.

“This unjust pipeline proposal is going to hurt us all,” said activist Ivette Hernandez of Springfield during the event in Veteran’s Memorial Park. “I live in the North End in Springfield. I know for a fact that a lot of my neighbors are not going to be able to afford their utility bills. And I don’t think a lot of us can afford it now.”

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities has stated that any plan must show net benefit to the ratepayer. Eversource and National Grid say if their petitions are granted, it would save New England ratepayers around $1 billion during a typically cold winter, with 45 percent of that benefit going to customers in Massachusetts.

But opponents on Saturday insisted the proposal would lead to higher utility bills and that corporations cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

“I don’t know why in the world you would believe what the electric utilities have to say about this matter,” said Adele Frank, a climate activist from Amherst. “They stand to make a lot of money off of this. So why would you believe that? I don’t believe that for one second.”

Holyoke at-large city councilor Rebecca Lisi called the plan “a regressive tax.”

“It’s another example of how the Baker administration’s policies and priorities are out of sync with what the majority of what Massachusetts voters want and need,” Lisi said.

While the protest was held in Holyoke and attended by both Lisi and Ward 2 councilor Nelson Roman, the city’s municipal utility, Holyoke Gas & Electric, has no plans to impose the surcharge on its ratepayers.

Surcharge background

In October, the Department of Public Utilities issued a novel ruling that said Massachusetts electric distribution companies may contract for natural gas capacity on yet-to-be-built pipelines, and recoup contract costs from consumers. The electric companies would sell the gas on the spot market to power plants, which don’t want to enter into the long-term contracts themselves.

The mechanism was proposed by the state’s Department of Energy Resources as a way to provide stable financing for natural gas pipeline companies as they seek approval from federal regulators for new projects in New England, which the Baker administration says are needed.

The utility arms of Eversource and National Grid opened dockets with the public utilities department, hoping to secure capacity on two proposed pipelines: Access Northeast and Kinder Morgan’s now-defunct Northeast Energy Direct.

In the meantime, the Conservation Law Foundation filed an appeal with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that the mechanism violates the state’s 1997 Utility Restructuring Act. The act, designed to create competitive electricity markets, forced electric companies to sell their power generation assets. The court heard oral arguments in May and has yet to issue a decision.

The office of Attorney General Maura Healey has been an active participant in the public utilities deliberations, insisting that Eversource and National Grid provide more information to regulators and the public. Healey previously said she is concerned the mechanism would “shift the substantial costs and risks of … long-term investment in pipeline infrastructure to electricity ratepayers.”

The funding idea goes back to 2014, when when the six New England governors met to talk about a regional pipeline tariff. That plan fell apart when former governor Deval Patrick walked away from the table. Now various state utility regulators are looking at individual plans for electricity ratepayers to finance pipelines.

The Baker administration said in an emailed statement Friday it continues to support natural gas expansion as part of its overall energy vision.

“The administration continues to focus on diversifying the Commonwealth’s energy portfolio and reducing costs for all ratepayers through a balanced approach of renewable energy investments that includes securing additional hydroelectric power, increasing energy efficiency and expanding natural gas capacity along existing routes through continued regional efforts,” said Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for Baker’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Lisi disagreed with that vision for the future, saying that regardless of whether the surcharge plan would raise or lower bills, the state should not invest in the fossil fuel economy.

“This pipeline tax marries us to an antiquated energy system that we will never see returns on,” she said. “We’ve reached the point where climate change and the energy economy have come to the top of the national agenda. … So I think we should take another look at where we are making energy investments.”

N2N IN THE NEWS: Policy expert to talk funding at Gerena School meeting

PolicySPRINGFIELD — After Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said at a meeting last week that it is up to the state to release more than $3 million necessary to repair Gerena Community School, activists and parents are ready to take action.

“We are fighting for our school and our community,” said Jafet Robles, an organizer for the statewide advocacy group Neighbor to Neighbor, ahead of a 6 p.m. meeting at the school Thursday.

The meeting, which is open to the public, will feature a discussion with policy analyst Colin Jones from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

“He is going to break down what the future of Gerena is in terms of what the costs would be realistically for a new school,” Robles said.

Jones will also be sharing information on school funding across Massachusetts, how the budget works locally, and how to achieve educational success for all children in Springfield, Robles added.

The meeting will include a discussion of evidence-based community programs that have made a positive difference for children and families.

Robles — whose organization has joined a coalition with local grassroots groups including Women on the Vanguard, the North End Community Corporation, Inc. and the New North Citizens Council — said he hopes the community will attend the meeting.

Those in attendance will have an opportunity to sign a petition asking Gov. Charlie Baker to address problems at Gerena, Robles said.

Following a protest held at the school in April, the city said the state must release a $3 million bond for repairs to the federal highway bridge on Birnie Avenue. Those repairs are considered key to resolving long-term issues with water leaks in a pedestrian tunnel under Interstate 91 that serves many of the school’s students.

North End residents, activists protest conditions at German Gerena Community School – MassLive

-b65be58b4c2e9a9fSPRINGFIELD ‒ Stressing that “enough is enough,” North End residents and community activists called on city leaders Saturday to address structural and environmental issues at German Gerena Community School.

More than two dozen protesters, including City Councilors Adam Gomez and Bud L. Williams, gathered outside the school’s Main Street entrance to bring attention to mold and other issues that they claim plague the building and its related tunnel system — hazards denied by a top city official.

Jafet Robles, a community organizer for Neighbor to Neighbor who led the protest, said the rally officially kicked-off efforts to address issues relating to the school.

“This is the launching of the campaign, this is the official launch,” he said. “We’re going to start working on this, planning and addressing the issues.”

As part of the new push, Williams announced that he and Gomez plan to sponsor a non-binding resolution in the City Council looking into if and how Springfield can fix the problems at Gerena.

“We want to know the answers,” he said, contending that the school never should’ve been built where it was due to the water issues in the area.

“I’ve been down here so many times, so many press conferences on Gerena,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

Gomez, who said he was unable to attend Gerena for years due to water issues, stressed that the community wants to be able to offer students the best education possible.

While he stressed that protesters aren’t suggesting that some of city leaders haven’t wanted to try and address the problems, Gomez pointed to the lack of progress.

“It’s been 20 years that we’ve been fighting,” he said.

Despite the concerns raised by protesters, Patrick J. Sullivan, the city’s director of parks, buildings and recreation management, said Friday that Gerena school is “very safe” and in excellent condition.

He pointed to a number of renovations and repairs completed in recent years, as well as additional projects planned with a grant application to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Members of Neighbor to Neighbor, Women of the Vanguard, the New North Citizens Council and other community organizations attended the rally.