April 20, 2024 • In the News

Rusty industrial structure with a tall vertical tower and adjacent green machinery against a clear blue sky.

FILE - The Waters River Power Station in Peabody, MA, where a proposal to build a new gas and oil-based power plant next to this site generated protest from local residents in 2021. John Tlumacki Boston Globe via Getty Images

As Massachusetts' power grid is built up to get ready for increased electrification, advocacy groups are calling attention to the burden that the siting of power infrastructure is already having on low income communities of color in the state.

With a stated goal of moving Massachusetts away from fossil fuels and decarbonizing the electrical grid by 2050, new electrical substations and other infrastructure projects are being proposed to enable that transition. A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and several other advocacy groups comes as state lawmakers and a commission appointed by the governor separately work on reforming the process of siting those infrastructure projects.

The report, released Tuesday, analyzed the distribution of existing and proposed substations and electricity generating units in the state.

"In terms of existing electricity generating facilities, those that are polluting the most — mostly powered by fossil fuels — are all concentrated in environmental justice neighborhoods," said Paula Garcia, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "More than 80% of those units are within an environmental justice neighborhood, with the associated negative health impacts that that generation creates in the communities."

The focus when siting new infrastructure has traditionally been on cost and reliability, Garcia said.

"But at this point, where we are right now, we should be also integrating public health," she said. "We should be integrating climate impacts, and we definitely should be integrating environmental justice as we move forward to the future that we want to see and that we're building now."

The report highlights the so-called "peaker plant" proposed for Peabody as an example of 12 large-scale power projects proposed in the state. The natural gas and diesel-powered plant would be sited within an environmental justice community.

"It's not a huge surprise to see [environmental justice] communities disproportionately burdened with industrial infrastructure, because that's part of what creates an environmental justice neighborhood," said Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president for Massachusetts at Conservation Law Foundation.

Peale Sloan said what the report highlights, though, is the need for those communities to be part of the decision making process for siting future projects.

"We definitely need to see earlier consultation and more substantive consultation with communities," Peale Sloan said. "And coming from the lawyer's perspective, I want to see that mandated in a bill. I want to see that as part of the standard of review for whoever is deciding if that infrastructure gets to move forward. Because you can set intentions and set goals, set optimal guidance, but unless it's actually part of the equation of whether it gets built, you can't count on developers doing good consultation with communities."

State lawmakers are currently working on legislative proposals to address the siting of energy infrastructure projects.

"There is definitely momentum toward some sort of clean energy siting legislation," Peale Sloan said. "Chair Roy, House chair of the Telecom, Utilities and Energy Committee, has a proposal for siting reform out. We know that Senate Chair Mike Barrett of that same committee is working on his own proposal. And presumably we'll see something from the governor."

Legislation addressing energy infrastructure siting could ultimately be included in a larger omnibus bill, Peale Sloan said.

Peale Sloan serves on Governor Maura Healey's Commission on Energy Infrastructure Siting and Permitting, which is expected to release its own recommendations for reforms to the siting process before the end of this month.

"We really hope that the legislature, this time around, recognizes the fact that there are people who are putting up with more than their fair share in order to support this electrification process, and we need to just more equally share that burden around the rest of the Bay state," said John Walkey, the director of climate justice and waterfront initiatives at the environmental justice nonprofit GreenRoots, which co-authored the new study.

"The path of least resistance for a lot of these projects goes through communities of color, low-income communities, people with the least amount of power to say, 'I don't want this, in my community,'" Walkey said. "Going forward, as we are making this transition to a decarbonized energy infrastructure — which is great — there's still going to be a need for energy facilities like substations and such. And we're seeing that they're still turning up more frequently than not in places like Chelsea and not necessarily places like Wellesley."