It’s been about two weeks since Brayton Point, the state’s last coal-burning power plant, stopped pumping energy into New England’s power grid. That was a big victory for environmentalists, who’d targeted Brayton Point for years. But in Somerset, where the plant operated for a half a century, the picture looks significantly bleaker.
When Brayton Point was in its heyday, 400 employees worked around the clock — moving coal from cargo ships into the plant’s interior, and turning it into power in a setting that verged on the infernal.
“You know, it’s 140 degrees over there,” Bob Clark, the president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 464, which represented Brayton Point’s employees, said of the plant’s highest levels. “It’s literally so hot that the handrails are hot to the touch. You have to wear gloves to even touch things.”
“Incredibly loud,” Clark added. “You’re turning these valves, it tears your shoulders up.”
And yet, Clark notes, that brutal environment offered some substantial benefits for the men and women who worked there.
“A lot of [employees] I know, they have boats — I personally don’t; I wish I did,” Clark said. “They own big sail boats, motor boats. Homes they were …planning to retire to in Florida.”
But those plans are changing. At midnight on May 31, the 1500-megawatt plant stopped producing energy. Now, it’s being decommissioned, or detached from the New England power grid.
Some workers are still on site. Others have left Brayton Point for good, and are seeking comparable jobs. They won’t be easy to find.
“Here, they’re making almost $40 an hour,” Clark said of Brayton Point. “Some of these [other] jobs are $18, $17. It’s better than starving homeless and penniless under the bridge. But when you’re used to making $40 an hour with overtime, holiday pay, a lot of things built into your contract, it’s a big hit.”
The plant’s closure isn’t just taking a toll on those ex-employees. Back in the day, Brayton Point’s property taxes were a crucial source of revenue for the town of Somerset.
“At its peak, we got about $13 or $14 million [annually],” town administrator Richard Brown recalled. “There was a time when Brayton point was probably paying about 30 percent of our general fund expenses ... Police, fire, highway, public works.
Today, Brown says, that tax revenue has dropped to just over $4 million — and the plant’s shutdown will reduce it even more.
If the site is redeveloped, that money could come back. The problem is, the town isn’t calling the shots.
“The Brayton Point site is a gorgeous piece of property — 300 acres, waterfront, available for port use,” said Brown. “The reuse potentials are enormous. The main limiting factor is, we don’t own the property.”
Dynergy says “a number of parties” have expressed interest in the site, and that a decision on its future could be reached by the end of 2017.
In the meantime, Somerset is seeking a new economic engine.
“We’d have to build 50 Home Depots in order to replace that tax revenue,” said selectwoman Holly McNamara.
She has a more ambitious idea: make Somerset an incubator for inventor Elon Musk’s new Hyperloop technology. It’s a possibility that might not be quite as far fetched as it initially sounds.
“My teammate and I applied for the Hyperloop One Global Challenge last summer,” McNamara said. “We were chosen out of 2,600 teams to be one of 35 global semifinalists ... That technology, in my opinion, is going to be the new wave.”
But there’s one idea no one seems to be taking seriously: that the old Brayton Point might make a comeback, thanks to President Donald Trump’s intense affinity for coal.
“Coal’s dead,” said Bob Clark, the union president. “Coal is not coming back. Unfortunately, I think President Trump’s selling people a hope that’s not going to happen.”