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Tenaska pursues revised air permit for South Huntingdon gas-fired plant

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
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Tenaska's proposed gas-fired power plant is depicted in this artist rendering. February 2015.

American power plants are burning more natural gas than ever to generate electricity, overtaking coal as the dominant energy source during several months last year and hitting record levels this month.

The low price of natural gas is partly responsible for the shift, combined with increased closures nationwide of coal-fired plants facing tighter environmental regulations, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said last week.

Despite all the gas coming from Marcellus shale beneath Pennsylvania, though, construction of large gas-fired plants here has been slow. Omaha-based energy company Tenaska hopes to break ground in the next few months on a gas-fired plant in South Huntingdon that it proposed in 2009.

The project is the subject of another state Department of Environmental Protection hearing on Tuesday as Tenaska seeks a revised air permit for turbines that will produce fewer emissions than initially expected.

“As the economy slowed, so did the need for new generation,” Tenaska development director Monte Ten Kley said of the project's long timeline. “In the past few years, we've seen a renewed interest in these types of projects as a way to meet growing energy demand in the region.”

With its large coal-fired plants served by rail lines and rivers, and the second-largest nuclear reactor fleet in the country, Pennsylvania only recently became attractive to gas-fired plant developers, said Bill Pentak, a vice president at Dallas-based Panda Power Funds.

“The discovery of the Marcellus shale is a relatively new phenomena,” said Pentak, whose firm is building three gas-fired plants — Liberty, Patriot and Hummel — in Bradford, Lycoming and Snyder counties. “There is still a lack of gas pipeline and transmission infrastructure.”

Pennsylvania regulators appear to welcome building more. Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley called natural gas “the perfect complement” to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

“Projects like ours are able to respond to intermittent renewable generation by quickly and efficiently changing load (or) output,” Ten Kley said.

That and the lower emissions tied to gas-fired plants would give them an advantage as states start complying with the federal Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from the sector.

“I think you will see more natural gas generation in parts of the country where you don't see it now,” Pentak said.

David Conti is the Tribune-Review's assistant business editor. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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