Biden visits Somerset, an energy bellwether

President to speak on climate at Brayton Point

REP. PATRICIA HADDAD of Somerset woke up a bit late on Tuesday, checked her phone, and saw she had 15 texts and six phone messages – all about President Biden coming to town.

The White House announced that Biden would be flying into Providence on Wednesday and then coming over to Brayton Point in Somerset to deliver remarks on climate change.

Haddad, who is rarely at a loss for words, said she was speechless. She fought hard for coal when the local coal-fired power plant was Somerset’s largest taxpayer. But, now that the two cooling towers at Brayton Point have come down, Haddad is fighting for offshore wind because she sees that emerging industry as the future for her tiny town of just under 19,000 people.

“I’ve always wanted to put Somerset on the map and this is a step in the right direction,” Haddad said. “People will realize there’s land down here.”

It’s a bit unclear what message Biden intends to deliver at Brayton Point, but whatever that message is Brayton Point will be the backdrop for it.

“That he is delivering it here is just huge,” said Haddad, who starred in a documentary about how Somerset has been buffeted over the years by the country’s haphazard energy evolution from one president to the next, and from one crisis to the next.

Electricity has always been the town’s major export, but the fuel used to produce it has changed with the times. It started with coal, shifted to oil when that fuel was cheap and plentiful, and switched back to coal after the runup in oil prices in the 1970s. Coal is now a part of Somerset’s history, and offshore wind is the dream for the future.

Few in town would have ever imagined a visit from the president a couple years back. Commercial Development Inc. of St. Louis purchased Brayton Point, tore down the cooling towers, and began redeveloping the property for offshore wind uses, but the Trump administration put the industry on hold for nearly two years.

With a lot of land to lease and no sign of an offshore wind industry, Commercial Development developed a plan B centered around leases to companies importing road salt and exporting scrap metal. Neither sat well with people living near Brayton Point, and a bitter fight ensued that divided the town and altered its political trajectory.

State Rep. Patricia Haddad speaking in the new documentary series “Empowered” that includes a episode focused on the energy past — and future — of her hometown of Somerset, once home to New England’s largest coal-fired power plant and now a focus of wind energy efforts.

Activists opposed to the scrap metal operations seized political control of the town and eventually prevailed against Commercial Development in court, shutting down the scrap metal export operation.

Meanwhile, Biden was elected president and his administration greenlighted Vineyard Wind, the nation’s first industrial-scale offshore wind farm located just off the coast of Massachusetts. Vineyard Wind is scheduled to begin operation next year.

Commercial Development struck a land deal with the Prysmian Group, an Italian manufacturer of undersea cable, and also leased space to Mayflower Wind, which intends to bring power from its proposed offshore wind farm to Brayton Point, where it will feed into the regional power grid using the same connection once used by the coal-fired power plant.

Haddad is excited. She got an invite to the president’s speech Tuesday afternoon and can’t wait to hear what he has to say – at Brayton Point.

Kathy Souza, who helped lead the fight against the scrap metal operation at Brayton Point, is also excited. But she says she is still having a hard time believing Biden is coming to her town.

“In the whole scope of world affairs, I’m blown away that the president of the United States is coming to Somerset,” she said.