Talking about the “power grid” in the U.S. can bring to mind images of high tension wires strung across massive metal towers and hefty brick buildings with large smokestacks built in the mid-20th century. For a lot of our electricity infrastructure this picture would be accurate. Our power grid is showing its age–not only in our continued reliance on a dirty fuel source, but in the plants that burn it as well. The boom of building coal-fired generation in this country spanned from the 1960’s to the 1990’s when new capacity turned to natural gas. While most of the natural gas plants we have are less than 20 years old, 71% of their coal-burning cousins have been around for over three decades. These older plants represent not only the dirtiest, but often least efficient components of our grid–sometimes with net efficiency as low as 33%.
Fortunately, we are at a pivotal point where the nature of how we produce power is changing. COOKFOX Architects along with landscape architecture firm Terrain are working together on a new breed of power facility in Salem, Massachusetts that questions many of our infrastructural assumptions not only in functionality, but urban presence and response to the local community. The Salem Harbor Station exemplifies the near term transition that we need to encourage in order to take quantifiable steps in improving the rate of pollution and carbon emissions attributed to our power supply.
Normally a power plant in the United States wouldn’t call for architectural design services. A lot of these facilities are sited far enough away from civilization that not many people care what they look like. Conversely, the Salem Harbor Station sits across the street from some of Salem’s historic district, including a school. With community support being a high priority for the plant’s owner, Footprint Power, the design of the new facility became paramount. I was fortunate enough to be part of the team at COOKFOX Architects to work on the new proposal.
Salem’s historic growth came from the shipping industry as a northern port that help connect New England to the flow of resources. This particular coastal site, located within the protection of Winter Island Bay, has been defined by coal for a while. As far back as the early 1800’s the coastal site was used to bring coal in from the waterway so it could be transported deeper inland via rail. It was only a matter of time before a coal-fired power plant was built on the site that would expand to its current size including three coal fired turbines and one oil fired turbine for a total of 730 MW of power generation. Today, the power plant is tagged as one of Massachusetts “Filthy Five” and famously targeted by former Governor Mitt Romney who said, “These plants kill people.”
But now the vein of coal flowing to this site will finally be cut off. After being purchased by Footprint, the site has been scheduled for permanent shutdown and subsequent demolition in preparation for the construction of a new natural gas-fired power plant to be built in its place. Peter Furniss, CEO of Footprint Power, sees a future moving towards renewable energy sources with a backbone of natural gas capacity to stabilize it–a fair view given that even if we were to explode with renewable capacity tomorrow, the lack of large scale power storage components require facilities like quick-start natural gas plants to supply the grid with power when the wind ain’t blowin’ and the sun ain’t shinin’.
The design of the new power plant utilizes new landscape design elements to help the facility visually retreat from the street before rising into a lighter structure that meets the sky. Designed by landscape architecture firm Terrain, a series of large berms will be constructed to create a medium for extensive plantings around the facility that help diminish the visual height of the buildings within. The combination of native trees, shrubs and grasses will help to attract migratory birds as well as playing an important role in stormwater management.
The landscape had many roles to fill beyond visual resolution. Constructed earthworks wrap around three sides of the power plant to help provide acoustic mitigation by keeping sound generated from the plant directed inward. Security at the facility was also a priority, yet the client specified the need to devise a solution other than the go-to answer for industrial facilities: chain-link fence garnished with razor wire. Instead, the berm incorporates a gabion wall at its peak that blends into the landscape while providing the necessary means of protection.
These large piles of dirt also bring an inherent insulating quality if properly utilized. To capitalize on the full gamut of resources that the new landscape creates, COOKFOX placed the administration building inside the berm, pulling soil and planting over the structure like a blanket that will help reduce its energy use in all seasons while embracing the workspace with natural surroundings–an unsurprising gesture for a firm that touts its dedication to biophilia (what’s that?).
The design team focused on how to respond to the neighborhood scale of historic, single-family homes on the opposite side of the street, in many cases defined by the traditional, horizontal lines of clapboard siding. The design pairs this goal with an effort to help the facility appear lighter as it climbed up from behind the new treeline on the berm and discourage the reading of a looming mass on the water.
The main building, housing new gas fired turbines and heat recovery steam generators, will be clad with a louver system wrapping around the acoustic skin that encloses the equipment. At its base, the louver screen remains a closed series of horizontal lines, but as they rise the louvers open to end nearly horizontal at their zenith over the roofs of the building behind them. As the massing climbs taller its appearance grows lighter to finish with views through the screen to the sky beyond. The white screen becomes a simple, but elegant veil around the main building that touches on the industrial use of the facility while providing deference to the local archetype of traditional clapboards. A similar treatment of louvers can be found wrapping the air cooled condensers on the water side of the complex.
(Click Images to Enlarge)
The concept of transparency appears again in a different form on the steam turbine generator building, clad in polycarbonate panels that allow a translucent view back to the structure of steel and cables in front of the acoustic cladding behind.
Contrary to what many would expect, the goal of sustainability carries through the project to a number of its components. Despite the fact that a power plant cannot receive LEED Certification from the USGBC, both the Administration and Operations buildings will be striving for LEED Platinum–the highest certification class.
The Salem Harbor Station is a project that prompts a change in perception for the home of industrial facilities. One hundred years ago industry was a common part of the urban streetscape with workers and wares helping to define the activity of the sidewalk in cities across America. At the end of the industrial revolution, the same forces that drove a residential migration out to the suburbs contributed to a similar exodus of industrial tenants. Rising prices for urban space gave way to larger facilities situated on cheaper land. Two programs that used to co-exist from one block to the next are now treated like oil and water two generations later, but they don’t necessarily have to be.
As the nature of industry changes its relationship to the urban fabric can also evolve. One of the biggest repercussions of this project is that the new power plant will occupy around a third of the site area of the old one (20 acres vs. 65 acres). One of the unsung benefits of natural gas over its fellow fossil fuels is not needing storage space for fuel stock. The former “footprint” of industrial program has shrunk through its course of evolution thanks to increases in efficiency and technology. Along with a series of existing oil tanks, the massive coal pile currently on the site will make way for new development possibilities.
The same transparent nature of the buildings at the Salem Harbor Station can inform a growing level of transparency of the production process behind all of the products that we buy. Where does our “stuff” come from? Who is putting it together and in what kinds of conditions?
The Coal-to-Gas Switch
The Salem Harbor facility is one of the latest examples of an industry migrating away from coal towards natural gas as a feedstock for making electricity. While part of this transition was encouraged by the EPA drafting new emissions rules for new U.S. power plants, most of the impetus for the switch was the depressed price of natural gas with the advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the large amounts of reserves that are now more easily recoverable. Some environmental proponents see a the gas-for-coal switch as a hollow victory, claiming that natural gas still emits CO2, but projects like Salem Harbor are exactly what this country needs in order to make a meaningful carbon impact in a short time frame.
One clear advancement is the amount of water needed for cooling. The largest use of water in the United States is cooling for thermoelectric power generation (about 49%) and the existing coal plant at Salem is a prime example. As noted in a previous Sobering Fact, the plant could draw enough water out of the harbor to fill the Empire State Building 1.3 times every day (the stats were actually taken from this particular plant) before being flushed back into the sounds laden with heat and whatever else managed to seep into the process. The new plant, however, uses a fraction of that due to the process of air cooling, reducing its water usage by roughly 99%.
One of the best parts of getting to be involved with this project was that objectives of sustainability and efficiency were being tackled at the source, rather than the end use. Designers have a long list of tactics to deploy in order to wade towards a greener standard for our buildings, but rarely do we get to help make an impact so close to the beginning of a supply chain. When it comes to producing our power, not only does a gas-fired plant emit a fraction of the pollutants of one fueled by coal, but the ratio only increases when the comparison is between a brand new gas-fired plant and a 60-year old coal facility. The new emissions regulations drafted by the EPA for new power plants help to stem the creation of new coal plants, but the truth is that the older ones are most of the problem. Building what will be perhaps the most efficient natural gas plant in New England is great, but having it replace one of the dirtiest coal plants is even better. Footprint’s new facility will hopefully be recognized as a new standard for the direction of our electrical infrastructure.
All Imagery Courtesy of COOKFOX Architects & Terrain