Somerset Power Generating Station

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Somerset Power Generating Station was a coal-fired power station owned and operated by NRG Energy in Somerset, Massachusetts. The cities of Fall River, MA, New Bedford, MA, Brockton, MA, and Providence, RI were within a thirty-mile radius of both the Somerset station and Dominion's Brayton Point station.[1] The plant began operating in 1925.[2][3]

In 2001, Massachusetts enacted air pollution regulations for six coal-fired power plants that had been grandfathered in under the federal Clean Air Act.[4] Those regulations required that the Somerset station either shut down or switch to a fuel with cleaner emissions by 2010.[5][2] However, in June 2010, Sierra Club reported that "NRG's Somerset power plant was shut down in January 2, 2010, according to schedule. The plant had burned coal continuously for over 75 years, and Somerset residents are already enjoying the benefits of cleaner air in their community."[6]


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Plant Data

  • Owner: Somerset Power LLC
  • Parent Company: NRG Energy
  • Plant Nameplate Capacity: 174 MW (Megawatts)
  • Units and In-Service Dates: 74 MW (1951), 100 MW (1959)
  • Location: 1606 Riverside Ave., Somerset, MA 02726
  • Coordinates: 41.7375, -71.145833
  • Status: Cancelled


2009: Shutdown Announced for 2010

Oil and jet fuel are burned at the plant in addition to coal.[3] As of April 2009, only one boiler (Unit #6, Boiler 8) was still operating.[7] Boiler 8 was installed in 1959.[7]

In November, 2009, NRG announced that it would close the Somerset plant on January 2, 2010. A company spokesman cited "market forces" and a "requirement that we close down or repower [by] September of 2010." NRG plans to convert the plant from burning coal to a plasma gasification process, which breaks down coal into its component parts before converting it into energy. No timetable for that conversion has been announced.[8]

Opponents of the Somerset plant, including the Conservation Law Foundation, the Massachusetts Clean Air Coalition, and the Toxics Action Center, expressed optimism that the conversion to gasification would prove to be infeasible. "Shutting down Somerset for an indefinite period shows that this old coal-fired plant is not necessary for reliability and undermines the likelihood that the coal gasification project will move forward," said Shanna Cleveland, staff attorney for CLF.[9]

Al Lima, a member of the Massachusetts Clean Air Coalition, said, "This waterfront site could be redeveloped to generate far more tax revenue, jobs, and benefits without jeopardizing public health and the environment in the way that a coal gasification plant would."[10]

Sylvia Broude, lead organizer for Toxics Action Center, said, “Closing this plant will immediately improve public health in the area, and we will continue to fight to ensure that NRG will not proceed with experimental coal gasification technology that is expected to have significant public health impacts.”[11]

In December 2009, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) released a statement saying that an announcement by the Deval Patrick administration would likely stall NRG's plans to retrofit the smaller of the Somerset plants to burn biomass. According to CLF, the state of Massachusetts intends to maintain its incinerator moratorium, suspending projects that would burn construction and demolition debris pending a complete environmental review.[12]

2011: NRG withdraws application to reopen plant with plasma gasification

In Feb. 2011, NRG Energy withdrew an application to the state Department of Environmental Protection for approval to re-open the Somerset plant with what the company called a more "environmentally friendly" process: plasma gasification. The plant was shut down in January 2010 following a state mandate that it either switch to a clean energy production or stop operating. The future of the station was left in limbo by a state policy that bans plasma gasification, and lawsuits by the Conservation Law Foundation and others. NRG won approval in January 2008 to use a mix of 65 percent coal and 35 percent biomass. Massachusetts officials urged NRG to use only biomass, but then the state placed a moratorium on the use of biomass while studies were done to find the best longterm policy. NRG had more recently sought approval from the DEP to use a mix of construction and demolition material and wood in the plasma gasification process. The material would be heated up to about 10,000 degrees to break it down into basic components called synthetic gas, or syngas.[13]

NRG is now evaluating what to do with the property, which could include selling it or using it for purposes other than a power plant, according to spokesman David Gaier. The Conservation Law Foundation, a group that fought approval for re-opening Somerset Station, said it will continue monitoring NRG and Somerset Station to ensure the site is being kept safe and that no toxins are being released while the plant is closed, and they vowed to work with residents and officials to find a viable use for the site.[13]

Emissions Data

  • 2006 CO2 Emissions: 1,404 tons
  • 2006 SO2 Emissions:
  • 2006 SO2 Emissions per MWh:
  • 2006 NOx Emissions:
  • 2005 Mercury Emissions:

Death and disease attributable to fine particle pollution from Somerset Plant

In 2010, Abt Associates issued a study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, quantifying the deaths and other health effects attributable to fine particle pollution from coal-fired power plants.[14] Fine particle pollution consists of a complex mixture of soot, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Among these particles, the most dangerous are those less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which are so tiny that they can evade the lung's natural defenses, enter the bloodstream, and be transported to vital organs. Impacts are especially severe among the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease. The study found that over 13,000 deaths and tens of thousands of cases of chronic bronchitis, acute bronchitis, asthma, congestive heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, dysrhythmia, ischemic heart disease, chronic lung disease, and pneumonia each year are attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. coal plant emissions. These deaths and illnesses are major examples of coal's external costs, i.e. uncompensated harms inflicted upon the public at large. Low-income and minority populations are disproportionately impacted as well, due to the tendency of companies to avoid locating power plants upwind of affluent communities. To monetize the health impact of fine particle pollution from each coal plant, Abt assigned a value of $7,300,000 to each 2010 mortality, based on a range of government and private studies. Valuations of illnesses ranged from $52 for an asthma episode to $440,000 for a case of chronic bronchitis.[15]

Table 1: Death and disease attributable to fine particle pollution from the Somerset Plant

Type of Impact Annual Incidence Valuation
Deaths 6 $45,000,000
Heart attacks 11 $1,200,000
Asthma attacks 97 $5,000
Hospital admissions 5 $120,000
Chronic bronchitis 4 $1,700,000
Asthma ER visits 4 $1,000

Source: "Find Your Risk from Power Plant Pollution," Clean Air Task Force interactive table, accessed February 2011

Coal Gasification

On April 3, 2007, NRG Energy entered into a five-year technology license agreement with Alter Nrg (of Calgary, Alberta), to use Westinghouse Plasma Corporation’s proprietary gasification technology at Somerset.[16] Westinghouse Plasma Corporation is a subsidiary of Alter Nrg and is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[16][17] According to the Conservation Law Foundation, this conversion would involve:

  • 1- "removal of abandonment of the existing natural gas reburn system and existing electrostatic precipitators,
  • 2- "removal of existing Boilers 1 through 6 and ancillary equipment,
  • 3- "replacement with up to four gasifiers, and
  • 4- "a syngas cleanup train including a syngas cooler, wet quench scrubber, baghouse, polishing wet scrubber, carbon filters, and aqueous contractors/bioreactors."[7]

In August 2007, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection gave NRG Energy, Inc. permission to modify the plant’s 50-year-old boiler, to “install a Plasma Gasification reactor system,” and to use that system to create a synthetic natural gas, or syngas.[16][18] This gasification process would allow for feedstock materials such as solid biomass and construction and demolition waste to be combined with coal.[19][16] Plasma Gasification is not a combustion process but requires an extremely high heat to produce syngas from solid materials. This high heat is produced by a high-tech electric torch technology originally developed by NASA to duplicate the temperatures in the plasma gas envelope of returning spacecraft.[5][20]

On January 24, 2008, the final air permit for the Somerset plant was granted by the MA DEP. The DEP also told NRG that the station could continue to operate the plant as is for as long as it needs to; this counteracts the condition in the “Filthy Five” regulations that Somerset shut down or convert to a cleaner fuel by 2010.[21]

In February 2008, the Conservation Law Foundation and other groups filed an appeal to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to conduct an extensive “Fail-Safe” review, as required under the MA Environmental Policy Act. [20][2] A Fail-Safe review would explore and compare “alternatives available to avoid or mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”[2] CLF argued that “the carbon dioxide emissions constituted harm to the environment and that was enough to trigger a stricter review.”[20] CLF also maintains that NRG Energy’s plans would violate the power company’s agreement under the “Filthy Five” clean air regulations, and that only real natural gas would be acceptable.[19]

In June 2008, the MA DEP denied the appeal and stated that the conversion would actually reduce emissions of some pollutants.[20] In response, on July 10, nearly fifty Mountain Justice Summer activists gathered in opposition to the Somerset project, donning haz-mat suits and delivering a pile of coal while displaying "global warming crime scene" caution tape on the front steps of the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Boston.[22]

Alter Nrg promotes the Westinghouse Plasma technology as “an environmentally responsible solution for older power plants.”[17] NRG Energy claims that retrofitting the Somerset plant with this technology will lower carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from current levels by either the addition of biomass and/or by future carbon capture and sequestration.[2][20] Trading Markets (an investment information website) reports “[r]eductions in greenhouse gas emissions from retrofitted facilities are possible by combining biomass into the feedstock to displace the need for coal and further reduction may be possible with the future add-on of carbon capture and sequestration technology.”[2]

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) states that converting the Somerset power plant to the plasma gasification process would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 81,000 tons per year and over 28 million tons of CO2 over the plant’s lifetime, compared to closing the plant in 2010.[2] CLF also anticipates that the burning of demolition and construction waste will release unregulated toxic chemicals.[2][19]Converting the plant to coal gasification is projected to lower the plant’s nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 60 percent, and mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions by up to 95 percent relative to current levels.[16]

The Conservation Law Foundation has also stated that carbon capture and storage is not a feasible process for the region.[2] The Toxics Action Center, Environment Massachusetts, and Massachusetts Clean Air Coalition are other groups opposing the conversion to gasification.[5][19]

On April 22, 2009, the Conservation Law Foundation announced its plans to sue NRG for violating the Prevention of Significant Deterioration program of the Clean Air Act.[7] In Massachusetts, the PSD program is under the administration of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.[7] CLF sent NRG a Notice of Intent to file suit under the Clean Air Act for failing to get a pre-construction permit, as required for any new projects at the plant that would create a significant net increase in emissions.[7][23] "We believe NRG is inappropriately trying to evade federal review and permitting that is required for this project under the Clean Air Act," stated Shanna Cleveland of CLF.[23]

Protests against Somerset station

July 10, 2008: Mountain Justice activists protest approval of coal gasification plant

On July 10, 2008, nearly fifty Mountain Justice Summer activists gathered in opposition the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs' decision to dismiss Conservation Law Foundation's appeal of the state's approval for the coal gasification conversion. Protesters donned haz-mat suits and delivering a pile of coal while displaying "global warming crime scene" caution tape on the front steps of the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Boston.[24]

March 1, 2009: Activists rally against coal in Massachusetts

In solidarity with the Capital Climate Action on March 2, protests were held in Massachusetts at the Dominion's Salem Harbor and Brayton Point plants, NRG's Somerset plant, and Northeast Utilities' Mount Tom plant.[25] In Somerset, seventy-five people rallied in a park within sight of both of the town's coal-fired power plants.[25] In Salem, about forty people rallied and speakers, such as Aviva Chomsky, were featured; the event was organized by HealthLink.[25] Approximately sixty people gathered at the Mount Tom plant in Holyoke.[25]

Coal Source

The Somerset station is on the National Grid (Massachusetts Electric.) According to, at least some of the coal burned at the Somerset station was mined by mountaintop removal.[26]

Citizens Groups

  • Conservation Law Foundation: As the oldest regional environmental advocacy organization in the nation, the Conservation Law Foundation has been involved in efforts to clean up the plant.
  • Toxics Action Center: Since 1987, Toxics Action Center has helped more than 525 neighborhood groups across New England fight toxic pollution in their communities.

Articles and Resources


  1. "Children at Risk State Fact Sheets: Massachusetts", Clean Air Task Force website, accessed June 10, 2009.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Conservation Law Foundation,“Somerset/NRG Coal Gasification Proposal Threatens to Undermine Massachusetts’ Leadership on Global Warming,” accessed November 2008.
  3. 3.0 3.1 NRG Energy, Inc, “NRG Energy Projects”, July 11, 2008.
  4. Massachusetts Campaign to Clean Up Polluting Power Plants, “Help stop global warming pollution in your backyard”, January 18, 2006.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 C. Eugene Emery, Jr., “Protesters in Somerset say no to coal gasification plant”, Providence Journal, February 12, 2008
  6. [ "Somerset Power Generating Station", Sierra Club, accessed June 10, 2014.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 22 09.pdf "Conservation Law Foundation Notice of Intent to Sue for Violations of Clean Air Act § 7604", Conservation Law Foundation, April 22, 2009.
  8. Marc Munroe Dion, "Somerset's NRG plant closing down," The Herald News, 11/4/09
  9. "Environmental and Community Activists Hail Shut Down of Polluting Plant," Conservation Law Foundation press release, November 5, 2009
  10. "Environmental and Community Activists Hail Shut Down of Polluting Plant," Conservation Law Foundation press release, November 5, 2009
  11. "Environmental and Community Activists Hail Shut Down of Polluting Plant," Conservation Law Foundation press release, November 5, 2009
  12. "Group: Patrick's stance will halt NRG Energy's Somerset plant," Herald News, December 18, 2009.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Grant Welker, "Somerset Station owner abandons plan to revive the power plant" Fall River, Feb. 23, 2011.
  14. "The Toll from Coal: An Updated Assessment of Death and Disease from America's Dirtiest Energy Source," Clean Air Task Force, September 2010.
  15. "Technical Support Document for the Powerplant Impact Estimator Software Tool," Prepared for the Clean Air Task Force by Abt Associates, July 2010
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 “Alter Nrg Corp. announces regulatory approval of Somerset Station Gasification retrofit”, Trading Markets, January 25, 2008.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Alter NRG Corp., “Alter NRG Corp. announces technology license agreement with NRG Energy, Inc”, April 26, 2007.
  18. "Capture carbon, but then what?”, Boston Globe, December 2, 2007.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 "Capture carbon, but then what?”, Boston Globe, December 2, 2007.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 Beth Daley, “Tiny Somerset set for large gasification push,” The Boston Globe, June 18, 2008.
  21. Marc Munroe Dion, “Judge dashes power plant conversion deadline”, Herald News, June 16, 2008.
  22. Mountain Justice Press Release July 10, 2008, Mountain Justice website, accessed, 9/26/2008
  23. 23.0 23.1 "CLF announces intent to sue MA coal-fired plant ", Conservation Law Foundation press release, April 22, 2009.
  24. Mountain Justice Press Release July 10, 2008, Mountain Justice website, accessed, 9/26/2008
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 "Massachusetts rallying to stop coal!", Secure Green Future website, accessed March 23, 2009.
  26. “Somerset Station”,, accessed October 31, 2008.

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