PEABODY — Controversial — and long-quiet — plans for a 55-megawatt natural gas-fired “peaker” plant off Pulaski Street have put a typically obscure public board into the spotlight.
But most of the six Peabody residents running for seats on the Peabody Municipal Light Plant Commission in Tuesday’s preliminary election say the plant and the surrounding controversy had little to nothing to do with their decision to run.
Five of the six candidates took part in a virtual candidate’s forum sponsored by the Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce, the city of Peabody, The Salem News and Peabody TV Thursday afternoon.
The five-member commission oversees the city’s municipal electricity plant and infrastructure. Members serve six-year terms. This year’s election will be to fill two seats.
Robert Wheatley, a 24-year incumbent on the board, is seeking another term. His fellow incumbent, Thomas Paras is also up for re-election. Paras was unable to take part in the forum.
They’re facing challenges from four Peabody residents, including Raymond Melvin — making his third try at a seat on the commission — Joel Brenner, MaryBeth Mallia, and Tracy Valletti, the only candidate who said the peaker plant was the reason she joined the race.
Moderator and Salem News editor David Olson asked candidates why they were running and a series of questions about issues including the peaker plant, climate change, the increasing demands posed by electric vehicles, and other topics during the hour-long forum.
“I do want to stop that project,” said Valletti, a former library trustee, during Thursday’s forum, which is also being shown on Peabody TV. She also said she wants to pursue green energy, use her health care background to raise awareness of health impacts on nearby residents, and maintain low electricity rates. “I have a lot of ideas how we can do this,” she said.
She criticized the lack of an environmental impact study and said the plant would put people’s health at risk.
Wheatley, who first joined the commission in 1997, pointed to past accomplishments including lighting at the football field. He defended the process the commission used in vetting and approving the peaker plant, saying members spent two years evaluating the proposal before granting approval in 2017.
Wheatley said the plant has “more catalytic converters than 100 cars. It’s not going to be the pollutant that they say.”
Melvin, who has worked in the utility industry for 40 years, said he would like the city to explore more alternatives to fossil fuels in the future, suggesting ideas like solar panels on highway medians or a parking garage that would provide vehicle charging powered by panels on the roof.
“I have some great ideas going forward as far as green energy goes,” said Melvin, who believes the city can reach carbon neutral status by 2050. With regard to the peaker plant, he said it would cost ratepayers more to abandon it now, and suggested that in the future it could be possible to convert it to another energy source such as hydrogen.
Brenner, who has worked for General Electric, has been attending meetings for the past 2½ years. He said he’s found the issues the board deals with to be “really exciting and interesting.”
“I wanted to be a little more involved,” Brenner said. He said he had no specific issue for running. “I’m a listener,” he said. “It isn’t so much about what I think, it’s about what the the ratepayers of Peabody want.”
He said that while he believes in the need for the peaker plant, he also appreciates what opponents have done in bringing concerns to light that have led to changes. “That is fantastic,” Brenner said.
Mallia, a former city councilor, said she believes that with the plant already approved, the commission should move on to other issues, including improved communications, such as doing more with social media, and “going green.”
She said she believes the plant will be an improvement over existing plants that are less efficient.
“I feel like the board needs a woman’s ideas and input,” Mallia also said.
Paras, a lifelong Peabody resident and local electrician, has served on the board since 2004.
In an email, Paras said he is proud of the work he’s done during his three terms on the board.
“Over those years, PMLP has continued to maintain one of the lowest residential rates and an unbelievable record of reliability of service,” Paras wrote.
“We are now in the process of choosing a new manager and are adjusting our energy portfolio to include a greater percentage of renewable energy. I would like to continue to be a part of those decisions,” he said.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis