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NJ Coal Plants Face Cleanups and Closures

Pollution controls and move to natural gas promise reduced emissions and a potential gain for consumers.

Tough new federal rules governing air pollution from power plants are working to clean up, and in some cases shut down, the fleet of 10 coal plants operating in New Jersey.

Though none of the four largest coal plants will shut down, most of the 10 will by the end of the year be equipped with state-of-the-art pollution controls to dramatically reduce emissions within two years, according to state environmental officials.

Credit: Calpine
The 83-megawatt coal-fired Deepwater Energy Center in Pennsville is slated for a conversion to natural gas that could reduce emissions and generate twice as much electricity.

For the owners of the plants, the investments made in cleaning up their units could put them at a competitive advantage with older and dirtier coal-fired plants in nearby states when the U.S. Environmental Agency proposes and adopts new rules governing emissions of mercury, acid gases and nitrogen oxide dioxide, officials said.

“It’s a real success story,” said William O’Sullivan, director of the Division of Air Quality for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s the economically sound thing to do.”

In some cases, coal burning units will shut down and be replaced by cleaner burning -- and at the moment, cheaper -- natural gas, a gain for the environment and consumers.

For example, Calpine -- a Houston-based energy company that touts itself as a clean, reliable provider of energy -- earlier this month purchased a fleet of 19 power plants throughout the Mid-Atlantic region from Conectiv for a total of $1.63 billion. One of those is the Deepwater Energy Center in Pennsville; Calpine intends to convert the 83-megawatt coal-fired unit to natural gas with a capacity of 158 megawatts, according to spokeswoman Norma Dunn. O’Sullivan noted that the conversion to natural gas and expansion of capacity will result in more than two times electric-generating capacity with less than 5 percent of the emissions of the old plant.

Other facilities, such as the city of Vineland’s 25-megawatt coal plant, will close down at the end of 2010 under a consent decree signed with the state agency. It is expected to be replaced with a 60 megawatt natural gas fired plant, a very expensive fix for the South Jersey, according to Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Nicholas Asselta.

O’Sullivan said the city had the same choice other owners of older coal plants face: either install the controls needed to comply with tougher environmental rules, or replace them. It is a decision coal plants in Pennsylvania are also likely to face, including the controversial Portland plant on the Delaware River, which DEP has been trying to clean up for years.

“It’s questionable these plants will survive,” he told a recent gathering of energy experts at a BPU session in Newark.

The two biggest coal plants in New Jersey do not face that dilemma because their owner, PSEG Power, agreed a couple of years ago to undertake more than $1 billion in improvements to the 630-megawatt Hudson and Mercer plants, installing sophisticated pollution controls to cut down on emissions. These include scrubbers to control sulfur dioxide and acid gases, which are expected by the end of the year. The investment at Hudson ran about $774 million, and at Mercer, about $500 million, according to Michael Jennings, a spokesman for PSEG Power.

When completed, the two PSEG plants will be the cleanest running coal plants in the country, O’Sullivan said. But some environmentalists still would like to see them closed down.

“Wouldn’t it have been better for them to convert the units to natural gas?” asked Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “If PSEG wants to be considered as a green energy company, then they should convert them to natural gas.”

Other environmentalists were a bit more conciliatory.

“Realistically, it’s good news,” said Dave Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “Notwithstanding our reputation, we don’t expect all coal plants to shut down yesterday.”

Still, both groups are likely to watch closely what happens with the former BL England plant in Beesley’s Point in South Jersey. There are two coal burning units there, but only one is operating. The other, a 130-megawatt unit, is under a consent decree to install a scrubber and a carbon injection system, which reduces mercury emissions. But it is uncertain whether owner R.C. Cape May Holdings LLC will do so or shut the unit down and replace it with some other fuel.

“The battle is going to be over BL England,” Tittel predicted.

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