When GenOn Energy (now part of NRG Energy) announced in March 2012 that it would retire the 1950s-era coal-fired Shawville Generating Station in western Pennsylvania—blaming the impending Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS)—the reaction was swift and bitter.

“Pragmatic energy policies should not guillotine coal from the nation’s energy grid,” then-state Rep. Bud George, who represented the area, said at the time. “Unfortunately, reasonable policies that would address valid health concerns while keeping coal and the Shawville plant in the long-term mix for energy viability were not pursued.”

Local officials were understandably concerned about the 73 jobs at the four-unit, 597-MW plant, the approximately $225,000 the plant contributed in local taxes, as well as the impact on area electric reliability.

It was a story familiar to many small towns in coal country, where stacks like those at Shawville have become part of the landscape, and local residents have come to view decades-old plants as something permanent. Shawville was built by Pennsylvania Electric Co. in the early 1950s, first coming online in 1954. The plant was sold to Sithe Energies (now Sithe Global) in 1999, and by Sithe to Reliant Energy the following year. (Reliant’s later mergers and restructuring would leave the plant owned by GenOn.)

To meet MATS while still burning coal, Shawville would have required expensive emissions controls that were not justified by the plant’s economics. Thus, GenOn made plans to retire Shawville in 2015 before MATS compliance rules kicked in.

Fast-forward two years, and things have changed. GenOn was acquired by NRG Energy, and abundant natural gas in Western Pennsylvania has made gas-fired power too attractive to pass up.

In late June, NRG announced that Shawville was being given a new lease on life—with gas.

As David Gaier, NRG’s spokesperson for its east region, explained to POWER, the conversion will be very simple: new burners will be added to the boilers to allow the plant to run on natural gas. Shawville will retain the ability to burn coal, and the only other changes will be building a pipeline to the plant to supply the gas.

The decision to repower was based on a number of factors, Gaier explained, economic, environmental, and technical. Coal operations will end in April 2015 as previously scheduled, but the turnaround will be quick. “We expect to have the station back in service on gas in June 2016,” Gaier said.

Some jobs will be lost—the refueled plant will employ about 40 people—but the site as a whole will continue operating, albeit with a different role.

“The station will operate more like a peaking plant after the conversion,” Gaier said. And, switching from coal will give Shawville “a dramatically improved emissions profile.”

Though the shift from coal will impact the local coal industry, it will also support the booming shale gas sector in Pennsylvania, which has created hundreds of thousands of jobs and seen the state’s gas production skyrocket from essentially negligible to third in the nation.

The glut of gas in the Marcellus shale has led to a boom in construction of gas-fired plants, some sited specifically to take advantage of depressed prices resulting from regional pipeline constraints. Those constraints, which are due to gas production overwhelming the area’s gathering infrastructure, are not expected to ease for several years.

—Thomas W. Overton, JD is a POWER associate editor.