Beyond Common Sense

The Sierra Club’s frequently silly “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign just got a whole lot sillier.

Last week, the New Jersey chapter put out the claim that repowering an old coal- and oil-fired power plant in Cape May with natural gas would hurt area reliability.

If that sounds like an odd statement from an environmental group, it should.

A bit of background here: The 450-MW B. L. England Generating Station, owned by Rockland Capital Corp., has been operating since the 1960s. It has two units burning coal and a third burning fuel oil. Rockland is under consent orders from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to stop burning coal and oil at B. L. England and either repower the plant with gas or shut it down. It’s opted for the former.

The Sierra Club, which a few years ago was embarrassed by the revelation that its Beyond Coal campaign was being secretly funded in large part by Chesapeake Energy (a major independent gas producer), has been trying to stop the repowering project under its stated goal of blocking the construction of new gas-fired generation. It wants the retired capacity replaced with wind and solar.

This in itself is defensible position, even if PJM says it’s not quite feasible here. But last week, the argument took a turn into the surreal.

Cherry-picking two slides from a 125-page PJM planning document, the Sierra Club is now insisting that PJM’s own data indicate the plant threatens reliability and can be shut down. What gives?

Well, the PJM document considers the reasonable fact that new generation in the area has been approved on the assumption that other generation—like B.L. England—will be retired. Here’s what the slide says:

“As noted previously, PJM identified several potential issues on facilities where the loading on the facility includes a contribution from a generator that is expected to retire prior to 2019 (i.e. the year being studied). Assuming the generation retires as anticipated, the loading on these facilities will be within applicable ratings.”

(You can read the document yourself if you like—the slides are on page 113 and 114.)

The Sierra Club argues this statement is a concession that the plant is a reliability threat and needs to be closed ASAP.

On the other hand, anyone with a background in power generation understands what’s actually going on here. Rockland is under orders to do something with the coal- and oil-fired generation at B. L. England, and it’s opted to repower. Without major emissions upgrades, it’s virtually certain that the old units will be shut down by 2019—right now its operating license runs out two years before that. (It was supposed to shut down in 2015, but PJM asked for an extension, saying its generation was still needed at the moment.)

But there’s a non-zero possibility that something unusual could happen—maybe Rockland might change its mind and spend the money on upgrades—and the old units would remain running. That’s an unlikely contingency, but contingency planning is what Independent System Operators like PJM are supposed to be doing. The PJM document doesn’t even identify any particular problems, just saying, “The need to upgrade these [transmission] facilities will be re-evaluated if the generation does not deactivate as expected.”

Demand in the area isn’t going away. PJM has estimated that about $143 million in transmission upgrades could be necessary once B. L. England shuts down, though a spokesman last week allowed that the shutdown might offset problems elsewhere such that other scheduled upgrades might not be needed.

Obviously, generation from a repowered plant would need to be taken into account in transmission planning, but that’s a far cry from calling it a reliability risk. The PJM document doesn’t consider the repowering project because it’s still quite speculative. The DEP and business groups in southern New Jersey support the idea, but it would require a 22-mile gas pipeline that the N.J. Pinelands Commission—it would pass through this environmentally sensitive area of the state—shot down earlier this year.

Steven R. Herling, PJM’s chief planning official, tried to explain all this to everyone yesterday, but the Sierra Club is having none of it, insisting that PJM is changing its story under pressure from Rockland.

The Sierra Club might still be trying to get beyond gas, but it’s clearly left common sense behind already.

—Thomas W. Overton is a POWER associate editor.