SHAMOKIN DAM -- Sunbury Generation, one of the oldest coal-fired power plants in the nation, will soon be generating more electricity by burning natural gas.
The Shamokin Dam plant, which began operations in 1949, was placed on a recent list of coal plants facing possible closure as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced tough new emission regulations.
Sunbury Generation's plans are to close five of its six coal-fired generators and replace them with two natural gas-fired turbines.
"It's predominantly driven by the new regulations, as well as the cost involved in burning coal," said Ed Griegel, the plant's vice president of operations.
The project will allow Sunbury Generation to produce additional power for customers out of the PJM Interconnection, more commonly known as "the grid."
Reports show that the plant will be able to generate enough electricity to power 500,000 homes.
Engineering for the project is being worked on now, and an application has been placed with the state Department of Environmental Protection for an air quality permit.
"We'd like the new plant to be on line in 2015," Griegel said.
He was unsure if more jobs will be added.
The project still needs to be financed. Although similar projects could cost nearly $1 billion, Griegel said plant officials don't believe the cost of Sunbury Generation's conversion will be that high. The work will be done in phases, he said.
Because the plant sells electricity into a main grid, service in the Valley will not be disrupted.
How the gas will be delivered to the power plant has not been determined, but there are several possibilities as to how it could work.
Don Brominski, director of business development at UGI Utilities, said depending on the plant's load requirements, and if it is in its service territory, UGI would first evaluate if the existing distribution service could handle the supply.
"If not," he said, "we would work with them in developing a new pipeline into the interstate pipeline."
However, Griegel said, "There is no defined location where it would come from."
The main pipeline, he said, runs east to west through the Williamsport area."We would have to get into that main pipeline at some point," he said. "There are a wide range of paths that could take."
The switchover may result in cheaper electricity.
"We have the largest natural gas line potentially right under our territory," Brominski said. "That's going to have downward pressure on prices."
UGI just lowered rates on Dec. 1 because of the Marcellus shale gas boom, he said.
"Natural gas is a very affordable, efficient form of energy right now," Crieghton said, adding that the supply of gas from Marcellus shale is outpacing demand. With power plants coming on board, that demand will increase, and that curve will begin to level out.
In the meantime, consumers will see savings. Crieghton said in 2010, those savings amounted to $633 million in utility costs. "We're only at the beginning of the curve," Brominski said. "I think it will increase substantially."