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Former Coal Powerplant Brayton Point to Make Way for Renewable Energy

Sarah Mizes-Tan

The Brayton Point powerplant on the South Coast is a monument to a source of energy Massachusetts once heavily relied on: coal. The plant closed in 2017, and on Saturday, April 27, the plant's landmark feature, its twin cooling towers, are scheduled to be demolished by implosion. 

The plant was once one of the state's largest producers of energy, burning coal to heat water into steam to turn turbines. But for the past two years, the site has sat silent, its huge industrial buildings abandoned. Now, a company called the Community Development Company Inc., is in charge of redeveloping the site for its second life, as an area where offshore wind turbines can be assembled before they're shipped out to sea. 

"The quay side here is about 750 feet long, and there's 34 feet of water depth, which is deep enough to handle the ocean-going ships," said Steve Collins, executive Vice President of the company.

The plant’s ocean access is what makes this site unique. Bill White, formerly the senior director of the state’s Clean Energy Center, said his organization surveyed a number of powerplant sites around the state, and the Brayton Point site was particularly well-suited for the incoming offshore wind industry.

"What's remarkable about this site is it's 307 acres, it's probably the largest industrially-zoned location on the east coast that's currently available for this type of activity: offshore wind," White said.

The availability of open space also plays a big role in how well-suited the site is for offshore wind turbine assembly. Turbines can stand over 50 stories tall and there needs to be enough space on land to move parts around and store them. 

In the powerplant's former turbine building, Collins of the Community Development Company pointed out two large cranes that he explained would be reused to move wind turbine parts around the site. There are plans to use the former turbine building as a storage facility for parts as well. 

But the most iconic structures at Brayton Point are its cooling towers. They look like cooling towers one might see next to a nuclear powerplant: giant, concrete hyperboloids, standing like two sentinels along I-195. 

The towers are nearly 500 feet tall, and they're hollow inside with an open top. They were built back in 2011 to cool the powerplant water before it was pushed back out into the ocean. The floor inside is covered in rubber mats with holes in them, and under the mats are sprinklers that once shot hot water hundreds of feet into the air to cool it. The water would bounce off the concrete walls and then rise into steam out the top of the tower. Collins said it used to sound like a rainforest inside the tower, back when it was running, but today, the tower is quiet, save for the echo of our voices. 

Credit Sarah Mizes-Tan / WCAI
The interior of the Brayton Point cooling tower.

Up close, the towers are visually striking, and Collins' company got suggestions to make the towers into a bungee jumping site, or to rent it out as a set for movies. But it was decided that the most cost-effective, and perhaps poetic end for the towers is for them to be knocked down to make way for the newest form of renewable energy.

There is also some hope that the site can play a more direct role in the offshore wind energy and be used as a transmission site for energy generated from the offshore wind farms in the future, by receiving offshore wind energy from turbines and sending it to the grid. White and Collins said the plant already has the existing infrastructure to the energy grid to make that happen. 

"As this energy transition takes place, we're going to see a transformation happen along the east coast, and it's these kind of sites that are going to be important to the development of the offshore wind industry," White said. 

Members of the public can view the demolition from a number of sites around Fall River, including Kennedy Park. For more information about day-of demolition activities, the town of Somerset has a list of FAQs here: https://www.townofsomerset.org/sites/somersetma/files/uploads/brayton_implosion_faqs_-_final.pdf