New Castle power plant switching to natural gas

Change from coal to keep facility open

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NRG Energy plans to retrofit the New Castle coal-fired electric power plant to run on natural gas, extending its operation beyond the April 2015 closing date announced last year by the previous owner, GenOn Energy Inc.

NRG is still in the early stages of its design, engineering and permit process but hopes to have the power plant's switch to natural gas completed by May 2016, according to Dave Gaier, the company's East Region spokesman for the Princeton, N.J.-based power company.

The decision to change the dirty, 60-year-old, 330-megawatt coal-burning power plant to gas use will create 50 to 100 temporary construction jobs and save the plant's approximately 40 full-time jobs, Mr. Gaier said.

The New Castle power plant was one of eight coal-fired electric power generating facilities in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey that were slated to close by Houston, Texas-based GenOn Energy Inc.

"The New Castle plant shutdown was announced because it would have required a substantial investment in environmental controls to continue to operate as a coal-burning facility," Mr. Gaier said. "But we looked at it and decided it could be operated economically on natural gas. We won't have to install the extremely expensive controls that would have been required to continue operating on coal."

He said the retooled New Castle plant, which now supplies base load electricity, would likely be operated as a peak-load unit to provide power during times of high demand.

He said he didn't know how much the changeover to natural gas would cost. The plant will retain its ability to use coal although there are no plans to do so, Mr. Gaier said.

NRG also has plans to burn natural gas instead of coal in its power plant in Avon Lake, Ohio. The switch-over of that power plant, which produces 776 megawatts of electricity, will take place during the same time frame as the New Castle plant, Mr. Gaier said.

NRG merged with GenOn in December 2012, creating the largest commercial electric power generating company in the U.S., with a capacity of 47,000 megawatts in the East, Gulf Coast and West and a combined value of $18 billion.

The New Castle facility was one of nine Pennsylvania power plants with a total generating capacity of 1,573 megawatts that were scheduled to close in the next few years rather than install better pollution controls.

Even if eight of those power plants close, power generation in the state is expected to increase. According to the Pennsylvania Electric Power Generation Association, new electric generation in the state could total more than 14,000 megawatts over the next five years with more than 11,700 megawatts produced by burning natural gas.

John Poister, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said new natural gas fired plants are "plan approved" for Moxie Energy in Bradford and Lycoming counties. And plant conversions are proposed for Sunbury Generation in Northumberland County and AES Beaver Valley in Beaver County.

"As far as a trend," Mr. Poister said, "we can say that over the past few years natural gas has been increasing its share of the state's energy portfolio."

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Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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