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NRG Energy to burn natural gas at coal-fired generating plant

| Monday, June 24, 2013, 3:51 p.m.

NRG Energy Inc. plans to convert its power plant in Lawrence County from coal to natural gas by May 2016, joining a growing list of power plants switching to the cleaner-burning fuel.

News of the project emerges as President Obama is expected to deliver a major speech on Tuesday on climate change and far-reaching plans for reducing carbon pollution, including tougher standards for power-plant emissions.

NRG's 330-megawatt plant in West Pittsburgh, in service since 1952, initially was to be deactivated in April 2015. But the utility decided instead to seek a regulatory waiver to burn coal there for an additional year until it converts to natural gas, spokesman Dave Gaier said.

“Gas addition is not new for NRG. We are well-seasoned and experienced in these additions,” Gaier said on Monday.

One megawatt is enough to power 800 homes.

Utilities in the past three years have begun converting or have announced plans to convert 35 coal-fired power plants in the United States, said Steve Piper, associate director of energy fundamentals for SNL Energy in Boulder, Colo.

The country has 591 coal-fired power plants in operation.

“With the mercury and air toxic standards taking effect in 2015, retiring a coal plant and firing it with natural gas is a way to avoid a lot of retrofit expenses on a coal plant,” Piper said.

Emerging federal standards on power-plant emissions of mercury and other toxins are persuading utilities to consider converting from coal. They have to retrofit plants with environmental controls to continue burning coal, switch power plant fuel to natural gas or deactivate the plants.

Industry analysts estimate about 15 percent of all coal-fired plants, or about 89, will shut down by the time the Environmental Protection Agency rules become effective in 2015, said Christopher Guith, vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy.

He said natural gas-fired plants could meet the emissions standards as drafted but coal-fired could not.

“NRG is not an exception. More and more utilities are starting to do this,” Guith said.

NRG, based in Princeton, N.J., has modified three coal-fired power plants to burn natural gas, all operating in the eastern United States.

The company declined to provide the cost of the Lawrence County project.

It should generate 50 to 100 temporary construction jobs.

Industry estimates on the cost of converting from coal to natural gas vary from $350 to $800 per kilowatt, depending on complexity and the nature of a plant's infrastructure, Piper said.

By those measures, the NRG project is likely to cost between $116 million and $264 million.

NRG operates 96 power plants around the country fired by coal, natural gas, oil and solar.

The utility's fleet includes two plants in the Pittsburgh area, both formerly owned by Duquesne Light: a 565-megawatt, coal-fired plant in Springdale, and a 289-megawatt, natural gas-fired plant on Brunot Island on the Ohio River.

The Lawrence County plant, which employs 40 people, would still have the capability of burning coal even after the project is done, Gaier said.

Thomas Olson is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or at tolson@tribweb.com.

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