Sounder SIGN UP FOR FREE
Stories from the Frontlines
Stories from the Frontlines

Season 1, Episode 3 · 6 months ago

The Wider the Net, the Stronger the Fight

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

This week on Stories from the Frontlines, we’re talking to Rosemary Wessel and Jane Winn from the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT). They’re spearheading the Put Peakers in the Past campaign, aiming to shut down polluting fossil fuel power plants that are rarely used anymore.

Listen in to learn about their corporate strategy, the effect these plants have on the community, and their vision for our electric grid’s future.

You can support the campaign by checking out the website: tinyurl.com/EndPeak. Learn more about the No Fracked Gas in Mass project at tinyurl.com/NFGactnow.

Learn more about Community Action Works on our website: https://communityactionworks.org/.

We’re also on Facebook (Community Action Works), Twitter (@ComActionWorks), and Instagram (@ComActionWorks).

Hello and welcome to stories from the front lines brought to you by community action works. At Community Action Works, we believe that environmental threats are big, but the power of well organized community groups is bigger. That's why we work side by side with those most impacted by environmental threats and train everyday people with the know how to confront polluters in their own backyards. I'm near Ra PA Johnny, the Western mass community organizer with Community Action Works, and dive Shanea Casper the Vermont and New Hampshire say direct there with community action works. Each episode of this podcast will bring on a new member, activists to share their story of taking on environmental threats from the front lines, and today we're joined by Rosemary Westvill and Jane Win from the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. They've been leading the put peakers in the past campaign to close down several peeking power plants around Pittsfield Mat secusets. So let's see how many peas we can alliterate into this episode. Welcome, rose and Jane. Hi, thanks for having us. Great to be here. Thanks for coming so we would love the listeners to hear a little bit more about you and your group. Can you introduce yourselves and eat so? I'm Jane Win on, the Executive Director of beat. I grew up in Pittsfield back when the housatonic river was really, really polluted and stinky, and then more recently we were fighting battles to protect the environment and found that the regulations were pretty good but that the system wasn't enforcing the regulations. So we started beat to react to that and try and force the system to work right. And I'm rose Wessel. I'm program director for...

...no FRECK, gas and mass which is a program of Berkshire Environmental Action Team, and I was always interested in environmental movements. I was working as a graphic artist until well, I still work as a graphic artist on the side, but not too often anymore, and I was always involved. I was the person who signed petitions and went to standouts, but I was wondering how I could make a bigger impact. And then I saw an article in two thousand and fourteen showing the large kingdom Morgan project being proposed. Was a large gas pipeline that would have cut across Massachusetts and up to the hill towns, and I knew what the impacts were of that kind of heavy infrastructure. I had seen gas land and knew what it did to the extraction zone. I also knew what it did climate wise. So I posted the article on Social Media, Set I'm planning on fighting this. WHO's with me? And hundreds of people joined within hours, filling in all kinds of little pieces of the puzzle. And then within hours I joined forces would Jane. I already knew Jane because beat would lend equipment to other community groups and so on. So our Sustainability Group had I met up whether before and she said we're looking at this already and want to do a presentation. And within a week we had no freck gas and masks the website up with all the information. As Jan mentioned the introduction. You're working on peaker plants now in Berkshire County. What's the deal with peaker plants? Why, I am a bad news for the area. Well, speaker plants are they're kind of the low hanging fruit of fossil fuel infrastructure. For first thing, if we're going to start dismantling the existing infrastructure, these are the really easy ones to eliminate. They're the most polluting. They tend to be really old. More than half of them or fifty years old or older. The ones in Berkshire County are thirty, forty and sixty years old and they have the least efficient Promega oup produced and they're...

...easily yielded unnecessary by things like energy efficiency, demand response programs and replacing what's whatever demand is left with good, still scale storage charged by clean energy sources. And just to clarify for folks who don't know as much about the grid system, these peaker plants only run a few hours at a time, I'm or sometimes even a few hours in an entire year, when we reach peak demand and are existing power supply isn't enough to meet that demand and so the grid turns on some additional power plants like these ones in in Berkshire County. Correct. Correct, and one of the problems too, is being older plants, they take hours to start up and get up to speed. So for the couple of hours that they're needed they're actually producing emissions when they're gearing up and powering down as well as when they're actually supplying energy. And one additional problem for the rate payers is these plants are actually paid to be on standby, whether they run or not, and they're paid a lot of money upping our electric rates unnecessarily. Yeah. Thanks. So the Berkshire Environmental Action Team beat you've been around for a while and have worked on a variety of different campaigns. So how and when did you set your sights on peakers as one of your big priorities? So we saw a study from physicians, scientists and engineers for healthy environment that looked at peakers and whether or not they need to be around anymore, whether or not they can be replaced, and also some research from clean energy group. There are wonderful nonprofit out of Vermont that works nationwide and they did a study on how many peakers there are, how old they are and how they can be replaced. So when we realized we had three of them in Berkshire County that barely ran anyway, it seems like a...

...great place to start and we're hoping to take it statewide next year. One of the peekers used to be at least the largest greenhouse gas emitter in all of Berkshire County. Their usage has been going down and down and down, so they aren't the largest emitter at this point, but it's still the same. You know amount of energy per you know megawatt per pollutants dumped into the atmosphere, so it's still in efficient. It's just that demand is dropping for it. I will definitely make sense that it would be something to tackle in your area. So, that being said, when you started this campaign, how did you how did you get it going off the ground? How did you get folks involved? Well, one of the things that really made a lot of sense was approaching the corporations that own these places and seeing what they had in mind. You know, it's hard to believe that anyone in the fossil fuel industry doesn't know that the writing is on the wall. We all know about the IPCC report and what needs to happen, and now we have the next generation Climate Road Map act in Massachusetts that says, you know, we need to get off of fossil fuels in all sectors and we need to reduce emissions from all sectors. So it seemed best to first find out what they were already planning to do and if they had any plans, and it gives them a chance to do the right thing, which ends up being a win win for everybody. I wanted to hear more about kind of how you're tackling this campaign. Of You know, I know you've been focusing on the corporate angle, which differs a lot from some of the other groups that we're talking to the season, and so can you just share a little bit about how you settled in on that strategy and how you figure out where to focus your attention? Well, I think asking them first, or the corporations first, what their plans were was really logical way to go, and one of...

...them immediately came back. Actually one who owns two of the facilities here came back and said, Yep, we're on board, we just need to figure out how to make this transition. We would love your help and we could connect them with these other groups. That could be helpful. The other facility, which is the really big one, was not so quick to come to the table. So we had fantastic standouts, we had letter writing campaigns and it allowed us to pull together a fantastic coalition of twenty two different organizations, I think two thousand and twenty five. Twenty five organizations, which has been a great partnership and will continue you for other campaigns as well. And now that we finally got through to that other speaker, plant owner. It was really interesting to hear the difference in response. You know, the first one is like, you know what, this is a great idea. We've been thinking about it, but we haven't taken action yet. Thanks for the nudge. The other one was like, Oh, yeah, we see our role in in the transition to clean energy as being that source for energy when the sun doesn't shine in the wind doesn't blow. In other words, their plan for an energy transition was to be a gas energy supplier during those times, and it's like, we're so far past that. You know, that was not an option. And then they talked about hydrogen and green gas, you know, and supposedly taken from clean sources. It's like no, no, you need to stop burning stuff. So by the time we were done talking with them, we paired them up with some analysts and they are now looking at transitioning to storage, just more slowly. They're looking at phasing in and we're continuing the public push to get them to go all the way as soon...

...as possible. And it was to keep everyone involved because there's so many stakeholders that, you know, have a piece of this. There are folks living in the eedy communities where these plants are cited. You know, their health outcomes are far worse than people in other neighborhoods. We have elected officials who are interested in making sure that they're sufficient energy, but also that their tax base stays unharmed. So if these places can stay in business, if that's a you know, a way that it can happen, they can keep paying taxes to the town. We have public health officials that would like to see how better health outcomes, so they started getting involved, writing letters saying no, you need to transition to clean energy. We have businesses who can benefit from participating in demand response programs. It can save them or even make the money, and it shapes peak demand. So we gave presentations on that and it cuts down the amount of time that they be peaker plans to run. And then, of course, there's everyone who's affected by climate so there's so many different people to engage that, you know, the wider the net, the stronger the fight. We just kept everyone engaged the whole time and we will continue to as we need to keep pushing that last speaker to go past. Can you yet tell me to tell off a little bit more of some stories of how you have engaged with these communities or some folks that you've engaged with on this campaign that you haven't had in your fight before? Maybe yeah, some of the folks that showed up at our standouts were either still in high school or fresh out of high school. was a band of several friends and one of them said, yeah, I went to the elementary school that's directly next to the power plant. The largest peaker is directly next to an elementary school. It's actually just across a toxic waste dump from the peaker plant.

So he said, you know, it was intimidating going to school and seeing these large smoke stacks overhead every time you went out into the playground. And we also did door to door canvassing. Because of Covid we didn't want to knock on people's doors and force people to interact with us up close, so we left flyers on their doors with painters tape so didn't disturb it. And it was amazing knowing that people were out canvassing and seeing the map fill in from responses on the petition. So if I knew somebody was on Dreen street out canvassing, I could see responses come in from Duren street and the other streets next to it that afternoon. So it was really, really amazing watching that fill in from the public and when we're out at standouts there's a tremendous amount of support from people passing by. A lot of hanks and waves and thank you and some some really great interactions. So people have been very aware. That's amazing and I love that you talking about as the canvasing is happening literally, you know, watching those petitions come in. You mentioned earlier that it took a little while longer to get a response from the company that owns the larger of these three, largest of these three plants. How did you keep forging ahead despite that total silence on their part? What how did you decide what to do next to try to get their attention and get some kind of response? I think one of the things that is an advantage on this plant is they're applying to renew their air quality permit, so that we had a leverage point where we're asking the state representatives and the city to actually ask our department of Environmental Protection to refuse to issue the permit until they would...

...meet with all of us, so we still don't know what really brought them to the table, but we felt like we had a variety of different leverage points to be pulling the levers on. That definitely makes sense. We also you know, you talked about a little bit of the corporate strategy and how that has differed from other folks on this podcast season. I think it also differs a little bit, probably from some other campaigns you have worked on in the past. If so, how has that looked different kind of going after these or trying to work with these companies and this energy transition? Well, no, freck gass and mass you know, for the first eight years or so, seven and a half years solely worked on trying to stop proposed projects, ones that hadn't been built yet. So we were usually in opposition to a proposal and we're used to making our case of why it's a bad proposal. And now we're starting to take on existing power plants. So these are things that have been around for decades and a little bit of it is is the same. I mean engaging on the permit renewal is a lot like going through regulatory process on a pipeline. But we thought we would be completely stuck with the two smaller peaker plants because they don't they're old enough their grandfathered out of needing air quality permits. So we thought we have no leverage points and they turned out to be the company that was most willing to make a change. So we didn't expect that. It was really incredibly plant pleasant surprise. And Yeah, part of this is there's also a long history of these plants. So a lot of the comments on the petition where I live right next to this thing, you know, I start wheezing when it runs. You know I have asthma. We actually made costumes for the standouts. One person...

...dressed up as a the power plant itself. That was Cheryl rose, came up with a great costume and I made a costume as an inhaler and we kind of dance around at the standout protests and Jane noticed somebody. There was a car with a couple of little kids in the back of the way. That's my inhaler. Oh, that's so sad. You know, wow to know that. Yeah, kids associate with that so much that are from the neighborhood. So it's it's it's got more broad roots than fighting a new piece of infrastructure. It's something that's been part of the town's for a long time. Even fighting this fight for a long time, and either fights before this too. Where do you find the the hope and the drive to keep going? Wins, and I love win one of these battles. It is just so good and elating and we figure, heck yeah, fighting against kinder Morgan and this huge frack gass pipeline that everybody said was a done deal, all you could do is move it around a little and actually winning and stopping it. That certainly was a huge enthusiasm boost and and also it just keeps coming back at me and how can you not fight this? And we know that we have to change things radically. We already knew that before that IPCC report saying we only have few twelve years, which is now ten years, if things have to change. And I remember when I first saw that they were proposing large pipelines to the area. I thought, no, this is the place that's putting up wind turbans, this is a place that's putting up solar why are we doing this? And that was, you know, the empathy...

...impetus to start fighting. It's the IMPASI impetus to keep fighting, knowing that we need to make this change as a matter of survival. Definitely, and I definitely resonate with the you know, wins are always so exciting and I know it can always it can be hard at the same time when they can take years to reach that moment where you can finally say we did it, you know. So so re minding ourselves. Also what you were saying rose on a daily basis of, you know, the change that we need to be seeing in this world. So we know a big reason these peaking power plants are still on the grid, and you reference that's earlier on is is is so new England are great operators keeping them active, subsidizing them, paying for them to be available in the off chance that they're needed. Can you share a little bit more about how I is so new England fits into this picture? Yeah, I a is so new England. It's long past the time that they need to transition to clean energy and take that transition and seriously right now. Is on New England really needs to restructure the energy markets that's in a way that disincentivizes fossil fuel based energy and incentivizes clean energy and storage. Right now the incentives are very heavily yeared towards fossil based technology or fuel based technology. And Yeah, it also means that our regulatory agencies need to hold the utilities feet to the fire and make them upgrade the grid to facilitate facilitate clean energy transition, including making a two way grid so that we can take advantage of all storage options, not just big grid storage, but people who want batteries in their homes, people's who are charging electric vehicles, school bus fleets. If they're charging that becomes another storage option and one of the big obstacles right now is the grid isn't ready to take on that two way...

...traffic. We're talking to a solar installer about the connected solutions program which, in theory is a very good program that helps people take advantage of all the different clean energy incentives and storage incentives. But somebody from one of these cusps, from one of these companies, went through putting the storage in and it got stalled for a half year while the Utility Company did a study on how it work and then at the end of that study they told them they needed to pay another ten thousand dollars to upgrade the grid in that area. It should be the utilities that are responsible for the grid and between is is on New England and our state agencies there's total, you know, disarray on who should be paying for what and who should be responsible for what. I would put that the blame for that squarely with our governor. He's the one who appoints our department of public utilities, who should be requiring that. The ISSO has done this grid mapping. Other places have? We need this so that we know where the upgrades are needed and to be able to distribute the funding to make it happen fairly, not when one person wants to hook up to the grid. Yeah, definitely a lot of key players who aren't following up on their responsibilities and being held accountable for what they should be doing for our communities. And circling back a little bit to the local situation in Berkshire County, you've mentioned a few different reasons that these plants are concerned that folks have mentioned, you know, the inhaler imagery and the issue with health impacts and then also the climate concern, so the emissions that are created by these plants. What have you found to be the pieces of this campaign, of your messaging, that resonate the most as you're canvassing these streets and talking to people...

...about the plants, and then I'm assuming that what resonates most with them is different from what resonates most with the companies that you're then turning around and talking to. So how do you kind of fit those pieces together? Yeah, you know, for the neighborhoods that live next to these plants, their concerned is their health and not having to breathe in the pollution and also the cost of their electric bills. So knowing that, when they find out how much money goes to incentivizing the the peekers, it absolutely lights people's hair on fire. I mean there's like what, we're paying millions of dollars for them to just sit and wait, even if they never turn on, and most people just want to stop breathing in the pollution. And when we first started talking to one of the peakers, they reminded us right away. It's like, well, you know, our interest is that we make a profit. We're in this to make a profit. So I would love to see everything be public utilities, truly public utilities, but I know that that's not going to happen. I also know, or not easily, let's put it that way, and I also know that the municipal utilities have their own problems. You see what's going on with the PVDPEAK ER fight. That's all to serve municipal own utilities and people were left out of the process or uninformed along the way about what was going on and now they're locked into a contract for a new fossil fuel plant that nobody probably really wants. So there there are problems on both the for profit utilities and the municipal utilities and I would love to see it truly be something that is in the people's hands and for all of our listeners. are going to hear more about the PVTY peaker plant campaign next week,...

...so stay two and I guess yeah, you could waive your magic wand and create the change that you want to see in the world, and by Wave Magic Wind I mean organized like Hell and get the people power built up to make things happen. What? What? What would that look like? What do you want to see happen? I hear you that there's these tensions and challenges with all of these solutions, but I feel like there is a real just transition that can come out of these this change. I think one of the things we really need government funding to be not incentivising big, huge plants instead really helping people be able to put solar on rooftops had battery back up so that when the grid goes down, people are okay, you can still have your oxygen machine running because you've got battery back up at your own home or at the community center. Having a really distributed grid with locally produced clean electricity and storage is the way we should be funneling our money, not towards more large investor owned utilities. I love that vision and I hope we can make it a reality and kind of thinking about this the future that we want to build. I know that right now you're focusing on these three plants in Berkshire County, as well as one of the company's owns, another peaker in West Springfield, and you're already in conversations with them about this, this transition, or potential transition. What comes next? You referenced a statewide campaign briefly earlier on. What does that look like for you? Well, there are twenty three other plants, I believe across or twenty other plants, if you take out the three in Berkshire County, across the state. So we would love to see the kind of campaign that we put together replicated and adopted...

...for each individual town and get people in those towns really interested in shutting down their local peakers. One of them out in IPS which is eighty four years old. Eighty four year old illness. So these are just false no, no pun intend at their fossils and they need to finally go away. You actually have materials on the no frack, gas and mass website that other people could adopt to make this happen. Yes, YEP, on no frack, gass and Masscom we have a tab put peekers in the past and it's got information and resources there. So if anyone is interested in finding out what you can do, my emails there. I'm happy to talk to anybody who wants to start taking this up early. We're ready for you to get you started in going and we also there's another thing that we're doing. We're actually working with mother's out front on their future of clean heat campaign there pressuring gas utilities, the gas for heat and cooking, to transition to clean energy as well, and we see that as another form of demand reduction. Certainly for winter peak that becomes a demand reduction issue. And there they have a postcard campaign going around. So we have another tab for that information for folks who are interested in that, and that's on no frack gass and Masscom. You can find us on facebook at no frack gass and mass. If you search that it'll pop right up, and we're on twitter at Nfgi am for no freight gass in mass. So you can keep up with everything we're doing or reach out to us through those amazing and will definitely put all those links in the show notes so folks can check them out there. Before we close, I...

...want to wrap up with a question that we've been asking everyone. That has been just amazing to hear people's answers about this. You have been working on this campaign for a number of months now and other campaigns before that. So for this specific fight or a different fight, did you expect what has happened so far when you got started? And looking back, what would you tell yourself at the beginning, if you could go back to rose or Jane, you know, a year ago or a number of years ago, what would you tell yourself? One of the first things we did when we started no freck, gass and mass was reach out to other people fighting other pipelines, and almost all of them told us it's at least seven or eight years of a fight and it's most likely the best you're going to get is to change the route to a less impactful pipeline route. And we just went ahead because we wanted to see what really could happen and we ended up with the Kingdom Morgan, the northeast energy direct, four hundred and eighteen mile pipeline, being shut down before it ever got really off off the ground. We saw access North East from enbridge go pretty much the same way. That was a sixty mile large pipeline through parts of Massachusetts, and seeing them just die, when people told us that you can't defeat these kind of projects, was amazing. Constitution pipeline in New York was one of the ones that we consulted with and their pipeline went just a couple of days before the ned pipeline went. Seeing them come down one by one has really given us, you know, the fuel to keep going for all these different projects that have cropped up since one thing that we I don't think we really counted on, was when the big ones die, a bunch of small ones come to replace it, sort of...

...the hydro effect. You know, you cut off one head and seven small ones come along. So we're continually fighting against smaller projects. Right now along meadow pipeline awareness group is fighting along with groups in Springfield, the the ever source pipeline that they want to build from long meadow into Springfield. Along with the meter station. There's the Northeast Energy Center, LNG facility. There's a bunch of smaller projects like that that came along and just stay engaged because the tide is turning and the clock is running out on fossil fuels. So knowing that, I I don't think we expected the tied to turn as quickly as it's turning, but it can't go fast enough given the state of the climate. I think the one thing I would like to have had somebody tell us was you are going to win, even when everybody is telling you there's no way you can win. I really was confident we would win on Ned all along, but winning in a year and a half was pretty spectacular. I love that. Yes, confidence and keep pushing through until you get that went and just want to shout out another future episode we have will be focusing on the long meadow pipeline fight, so stay tuned for that as well for a lot more information on what's going on in long meadow and Springfield. Well. Thank you so so much to rose and Jane for coming on and sharing their story with us about peeking power plants in brickshirt counting to support the Puck Pete put the peekers in the past campaign. You can check out the links in the show notes for more information. Join US next time to learn about a new peeking power plant being proposed in PBOD Massachusetts with community leader student smaller. And, if you have it yet, be sure to subscribe to this podcast...

...on whichever podcast platform us so that you won't miss new episodes as they get posted. Share this episode and write us a review to help others find us to to learn more about community action works, check out our website and social media and again, all of these links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and talk with you next week. Stories from the front lines is brought to you by community action works. It is recorded by me near a pe Johnny with support from Shana Casper, edited and produced by Lilly mclachlin. Special thanks to Theo Rosen for research and development, to Gage Calhoun for supporting this project through her fundraising work and to Aaron Matthew for composing and recording the original music. We wouldn't be able to make this happen without the incredible work of the movement and the support of the community action works team, especially Ruthy rickenbacker. Our campaigns are made possible through our do paying members, donors and funders, but really through the hard and tireless work of our community leaders, who've been fighting pollution and seating solutions across the region since one thousand nine D and seven. Thank you.

In-Stream Audio Search

NEW

Search across all episodes within this podcast

Episodes (8)