Another Power Plant to Make the Move from Coal to Natural Gas

Tom Johnson | June 22, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Oil-fired plant also in the queue to switch over, as company cleans up its act

B. L. England, one of the state’s few remaining coal-fired power plants, is switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, a move environmental officials say will significantly improve air quality without harming energy reliability.

RC Cape May Holdings LLC agreed to the move in an administrative consent order signed with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The order stipulates that the company will shut down one of its-coal-fired units and convert two others, one now running on coal and the other using oil to natural gas.

The move is not unexpected given tougher environmental rules, which are forcing many older coal plants to shut down across the nation. Economics also are a factor in the decision, an energy analyst said, given the low prices of natural gas, which make it difficult for older coal-fired plants to compete with more efficient gas-fired units.

“Right now, natural gas has a substantial natural advantage due to its lower cost and comparatively benign environmental profile compared to coal,” said Paul Patterson, an analyst with Glenrock Associates.

The conversion will nearly eliminate emissions of smog-causing nitrogen oxides, as well as sulfur dioxide emissions, which cause acid rain and haze. The two coal-fired units at the B.L. England plant on Great Egg Harbor in Upper Township are the last coal-fired units in the state without state-of-the-art pollution equipment.

“This agreement will bring one of the oldest plants here in New Jersey into the 21st century, and keep it there for a long time to come with extremely low emissions,” said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. The units were built in the early 1960s, according to the department.

New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Bob Hanna said the agreement advances the Christie administration’s goals of increasing grid reliability, reducing energy costs, cleaning the environment, and enhancing the economic competitiveness of the state.

Because the new combined-cycle natural gas units are more efficient, the overall capacity of the plant will remain at 450 megawatts, but could increase to 570 megawatts, according to Jim Maiz, senior vice president for RC Cape May Holdings LLC, which has owned the plant since 2007.

The consent order resolves air pollution violations when the plant was under owners of Atlantic City Electric, Conectiv and Pepco Holdings Co.

Under the agreement, coal-fired unit one will shut by the fall of 2103. A second unit, which also burns coal, will shut down in May 2015 and be converted to natural gas, expected to come on line by May 2016. A third unit, which burns oil, also will be converted to natural gas by May 2016.

Environmentalists were happy the units are being converted from coal, but expressed concerns about the timing.

Under a prior consent order, the units were supposed to have been closed or cleaned up by this past May, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This buys them another for four years to keep polluting,” he said.

“Anytime we’re not using coal is a good thing, but the natural gas cannot come from fracking,” said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, referring to the practice of drilling for natural gas by flushing millions of gallons of water and chemicals into shale formations. “Otherwise we’re winning the battle, but losing the war.”

The Christie administration has vowed to not allow any new coal plants to be built in New Jersey. When the B.L. England power plant converts to natural gas, there will be only six coal-fired units operating in the state — one unit in Jersey City; two units in Mercer County; two units in Carney’s Point; and one in Logan Township.

At PSEG Power’s coal-fired power plants in Mercer and Hudson counties, the units were running on coal today in the midst of the season’s first heat wave, but have only run a few times this year using that fuel. The rest of the time they were running on natural gas, according to Michael Jennings, a spokesman for the company.