PEABODY — Jerry Halberstadt has asthma, and lives about a mile from a new fossil fuel-fired peaking power plant that's being built.
He's very conscious of air quality because of his diagnosis, he said. "This stuff can stop me in my tracks. There's an impact from the burning of fossil fuels."
But more than anything, Halberstadt worries for his three grandchildren, and "the nastiness that awaits them."
In a "mass action" demonstration with speakers, bikers, kayakers and even kites, protestors converged on the Water Street bridge between Peabody and Danvers on May 26 to further their opposition to a new peaker plant being built off Peabody's Pulaksi Street, where two power plants already exist on a riverfront site.
The new plant, which has received all necessary approvals from the state and been green-lighted for construction, would be located within an environmental justice neighborhood, a state designation given to areas where residents are historically vulnerable to environmental hazards.
State laws passed since the Peabody plant's permitting process aim to vet projects as such and protect these very communities from fallout. Protestors on May 26 indicated they're ramping up efforts to stop the plant.
Even if opponents are unable to halt the construction, "we're shutting that damn thing down," said Jim Mulloy, a Salem resident and climate activist. Mulloy said "non-violent civil disobedience" is "now on the table," and that "we're not giving up."
Susan Smoller, a Peabody resident and co-founder of Breathe Clean North Shore, a group that formed in response to the peaker project, sees increasing momentum in their movement. "We've got the ear of the people," she said.
"People need to know this hasn't gone away. In fact, they're moving forward."
What is a peaker plant?
A peaker plant, also known as a peaking power plant, is only used when there's high — or peak — demand for energy. It's estimated the Peabody plant will be turned on for about 239 hours per year.
Why are people opposing the Peabody peaker plant?
The situation in Peabody has taken center stage for climate activists in Massachusetts, which by law is now required to cut its emissions in half by 2030, and then reach net zero by 2050. Opponents feel building a natural gas and oil-fired power plant at this stage in the game is completely contradictory to those efforts.
Judith Black, a Marblehead resident and member of 350 Mass, said the peaker "flies in the face of environmental justice goals and our climate roadmap bill."
If going through the permitting process today under the state's climate legislation OK'd last year, the project would not be approved, opponents contend. They're calling on Gov. Charlie Baker to undertake the environmental and community health studies that are now required by law, but weren't when the Peabody peaker moved through its approvals.
In addition to many area residents being people of color, low-income, elderly and individuals with disabilities, located nearby are daycare centers, New England Homes for the Deaf and MGH Danvers hospital.
Smoller told protestors they're asking for "the due process we have been denied."
Mireille Bejjani, a climate organizer with Community Action Works, said last week's response to seeing plant construction begin was what needed to happen to "hold Gov. Baker and Energy Secretary (Beth) Card accountable."
"It's not too late," she said. "It's never too late to make sure we're protecting our communities from a polluting project."
A group called Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibilitywrote in a letter last year that the plant would "increase mortality rates in the surrounding communities," calling for an end to the "misguided project."
Who is funding the Peabody peaker plant?
The entire project is estimated to cost $85 million. Municipal light plants in 14 communities have already put up money and signed 30-year contracts to receive power from the peaker plant, including Peabody, Marblehead, Wakefield, Hull, Mansfield, Shrewsbury, Sterling, Boylston, West Boylston, Holden, Holyoke, Chicopee, South Hadley and Russell.
Holyoke and Chicopee have since backed out of their contracts, but have not been able to sell their shares.
Municipalities can buy "on call" energy capacity on the free market, or they can buy into a peaker plant, like the one being constructed in Peabody.
Julie Smith-Galvin, a town councilor in Wakefield, said she first learned about the project in 2020, five years after it was proposed. She alerted the Sierra Club and other key environmental players in the state.
Smith-Galvin was "angry and sad," she said, that the Wakefield Municipal Gas and Light Department recently affirmed via a vote its financial commitment to the peaker, which she called a "symbol of climate inaction for generations to come."
A recent report prepared by Strategen Consulting stated that municipalities could see cost savings if they withdrew from the Peabody project and instead purchased energy capacity from the market.
Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, which is building and operating the plant, has said it would lose $31 million if the project sunk.
Why is the Peabody peaker plant being built?
Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company contends this peaker will run more cleanly and efficiently than 94% of power plants in New England today.
They say peaker plants will be critical as more renewable energy sources come online, to fill necessary gaps and address capacity constraints. Because of this, MMWEC maintains on its webpage about the project that it "aligns with the Massachusetts Decarbonization Roadmap."
MMWEC has touted modeling that indicates the emissions produced if all three on-site plants were running at once would be below the federal and state ambient air quality standards. The state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs could have required an environmental impact review, but decided that was not required, MMWEC said.
Twenty Massachusetts cities and towns are members of MMWEC, including the Peabody Municipal Light Plant, which is allowing the corporation to use its land off Pulaski Street to construct the project. MMWEC says the municipalities involved in the project will be protected from price volatility and in turn see better rates.
MMWEC did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Joe Anastasi, manager of the Peabody Municipal Light Plant, said the peaker is in line with the entity's goals to become carbon-free by 2050, noting Massachusetts municipal lights plants have "a diverse power portfolio that is already 42% non-carbon emitting."
"We endeavor to be ahead of the state Department of Environmental Protection regulation for 100% net-zero emissions by 2050," Anastasi said. "As much as we'd like to, we simply can't get there overnight."
Anastasi said the Peabody peaker project "provides value to PMLP and the region not as an 'energy' resource, but as a 'capacity' resource."
"Whereas energy is available all the time when you plug into an outlet, capacity is the ability to step-in when renewables cannot satisfy real-time demand and mitigates the risk to reliability," he said.