Natural gas-fueled power plants on rise
With an abundant supply of cheap natural gas from Marcellus shale reserves and coal-fired plants facing tougher environmental rules, Pennsylvania is seeing a surge in natural gas-fueled power plants — including one being built in Westmoreland County and another slated for Greene County.
“The natural gas industry is planning quite a few (natural gas-fueled plants) over the next year or two. It is mostly price-driven because natural gas is cheaper than other energy sources,” said Tyler Hodge, an electricity economist for the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
While Pennsylvania is home to 46 natural gas-fired power plants and the same number of coal-fired plants, natural gas is the fuel of choice for new power plants. The state Public Utility Commission reported that in 2016, operators of 36 natural gas-fueled power plants with a total generating capacity of 7,920 megawatts requested to be connected to the PJM Interconnection power grid — which coordinates the flow of wholesale electricity in Pennsylvania and 12 other states.
By contrast, one coal-fired plant with a 10-megawatt capacity in 2016 requested to be connected to the grid, the PUC reported.
Westmoreland County is expected to have a new natural gas-fueled power plant generating 925 megawatts in South Huntingdon by the end of the year.
Tenaska Westmoreland Generating Station is being built in South Huntingdon, and phased hiring has begun in preparation for operating the $500 million plant, said Vasu Pinapati, vice president for engineering and construction at Nebraska-based Tenaska.
The plant management staff has been hired, and the rest of the operations staff should be in place in March, Pinapati said. When it does go online with about 24 full-time employees, the plant will be capable of powering about 925,000 homes.
Tenaska began building the plant between the Smithton and West Newton exits of Interstate 70 in 2016.
Another gas-fired power plant is in the planning stages in Greene County. Hill Top Energy Center LLC of Huntington Bay, N.Y., wants to build a 620-megawatt plant near the village of Nemacolin in Cumberland Township on a site adjacent to an abandoned coal mine refuse pile.
The state Department of Environmental Protection in December issued the company an air-quality permit. That cleared the way to build the plant once local government approvals are met.
Hill Top still must submit site plans for township approval, said Ann Bargerstock, Cumberland's zoning officer. Bargerstock anticipated the company will get its local permits this year.
Hill Top has said it wants to begin construction this year, with the plant going online in 2021.
Neither Richard Radini, managing director for Hill Top, nor William Campbell, Hill Top Energy consultant and owner of First Defense Operations Management of Monroeville, could be reached for comment.
Projects like Tenaska and others indicate the power industry is confident in building those generating plants because natural gas prices have been so low for so long, and the prices are forecast to remain low, Hodge said.
With or without environmental regulations placed on emissions from coal-fired plants through pollution restrictions in the EPA's Clean Power Plan, most power plants being built will be fueled by natural gas, said Eric Brooks, energy analyst for S&P Global Platts, an independent industrial research and ratings firm based in New York.
“The reason is two-fold. Coal production has been on the decline for a few decades in the U.S. ... and Pennsylvania is sitting atop one of the largest (Marcellus shale) gas fields in the world,” Brooks said.
Natural gas has gained power-generating capacity at the expense of coal. The PJM grid received 66 percent of its power-generating capacity in 2016 from coal and natural gas — evenly split between the two fuel sources. Six years earlier, coal was king with almost 41 percent of the capacity, compared to 29 percent for natural gas, said Jason McGovern, a spokesman for the Norristown-based PJM.
Utility companies have shut down coal-fired power plants, including FirstEnergy Corp.'s Hatfield's Ferry Power Plant near Carmichaels, Greene County, and the Mitchell Power Plant near New Eagle, Washington County.
“New gas-fired units are more efficient than gas units built 10 or more years ago,” McGovern said. “This, combined with the increased gas availability from Marcellus and Utica shales located in the PJM region, has driven down prices and made gas increasingly competitive with coal for power generation.”
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.