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This old coal plant is now a solar farm, thanks to pressure from local activists

In Massachusetts, one town fought to stop pollution–and ensured a just transition for workers at the coal plant.

This old coal plant is now a solar farm, thanks to pressure from local activists
[Photo: Toxics Action Center]

For more than half a century, a coal plant in the city of Holyoke, Massachusetts spewed pollution into the air. Now, the plant is closed, and 17,000 solar panels and a battery storage system–the largest in the state–send clean power to the grid. Later this year, as the coal plant’s smokestacks come down, the rest of the site will be developed for new industry.

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[Photo: Toxics Action Center]

It’s a transition that was driven by the economic collapse of coal and accelerated by local activists who were concerned about the area’s high asthma rates, twice as high as the rest of the state. “We know the things that come out of a smokestack are major triggers and contributors to respiratory issues,” says Claire Müller, lead community organizer for the Toxics Action Center, which partnered with Neighbor to Neighbor, a local Latinx-led organization, to pressure the company that owned the coal plant to shut it down–and to help workers at the coal plant make the shift fairly.

Activists first launched a campaign in 2010, and within a year, had built a coalition of hundreds of people, along with businesses and labor unions. The campaigners knew from the beginning, Müller says, that it was critical to protect people who worked at the coal plant. “We worked with the community members to reach out to the union of the workers of the coal plant to express to them, ‘Hey, we want to see this closed sooner rather than later, but we are not trying to ruin your life, basically. We want to see you land safely.”

At first, the company running the plant, GDF Suez (now renamed Engie), was unresponsive to activists. The campaigners finally told the company they would show up on a certain date and threatened to hold a press conference outside the company’s office if they refused to meet. The pressure worked, and the company began talking with community members, who argued that renewable energy would be the best use of the site. They also argued that workers should get good severance packages, longtime workers should be able to access retirement when the plant closed, and younger workers should get training in new fields. All of that eventually happened.

[Photo: Toxics Action Center]

“It became inevitable that the coal plant would close at some point given the economics of the coal industry,” says Alex Morse, mayor of Holyoke. But the push from activists helped the process move more quickly, and likely more equitably. The activists also worked to help the city get a grant to study ways to reuse the site, garnering evidence that solar power would be viable. “I think they also played a role in being proactive with the visioning of the site so that when it did close, we already had the renewable energy,” he says. “The solar project was already sort of a community-agreed-upon value, a goal that everybody could get behind. And we got ahead of the curve, in that sense, when we started that plan even before the coal plant shut down.”

The coal plant, which had been running intermittently in its last year to provide power at times of peak demand, closed in 2014. By 2017, the solar panels were installed and running; in late 2018, Engie installed battery storage on the site. Although the community solar farm can provide far less energy than the massive coal plant–3 megawatts versus 143 megawatts–having batteries on site means that it can also help provide energy when needed, not only when it’s sunny. That helps keep electricity rates low. It also helps avoid the use of more natural gas–a cleaner source of power than coal, but still a source of pollution.

Holyoke’s municipal electricity company, which buys power from the solar farm, now runs almost completely on clean power. Much of it comes from hydropower, and solar adds to the mix. “We have an ambition of being a carbon-neutral community,” says Morse. “We get closer and closer with each project like this.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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