Conversion of the B.L. England power plant from coal to natural gas has been hailed as good news for the environment and air quality, but Ron Hutchison doesn’t see it that way.
He said it’s true that the change will eliminate many of the harmful pollutants and particulates produced by burning coal, but his concern is with carbon dioxide.
“It’s taken as fact that this will be cleaner, but if this plant is running more, then CO2 will actually be produced more,” said Hutchison, a biology professor at Richard Stockton College and president of South Jersey 350.org, a climate-change advocacy group.
Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, and contributes to climate change. It is labeled as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and was a focus of President Barack Obama’s recently unveiled climate action plan.
B.L. England, which sits on the Great Egg Harbor Bay in Upper Township, emitted nearly 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2011 and was the 18th highest carbon dioxide emitter in the state that year. By comparison, 10 other plants in the state emit more than 1 million tons a year, including four in South Jersey.
But B.L. England currently operates on a very limited basis. It is called a “peaker plant,” meaning it runs only at times of peak energy demand, which is usually during the summer.
When it is running on natural gas, however, the plant is expected to operate year-round. That means that while the new fuel is supposed to emit 30 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when running, it will likely emit more on an annual basis.
“Replacing a part-time coal-burning facility with a full-time gas-burning facility does nothing,” said Glen Klotz, of Margate, another member of 350.org, during a recent public hearing on the natural gas pipeline that will be run to the plant.
State Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna disagreed with that perspective.
“The greatest overall CO2 benefit happens when a very clean plant runs often,” Hajna wrote in an email. “That means that a coal unit somewhere is not running.”
He also pointed out that demand for energy is the true driver of how much the plant will run.
“If we eliminated the need for energy, that would be the cleanest and least carbon-producing solution yet,” he said, “but that just isn’t practical.”
The switch to natural gas will also reduce pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which are shown to cause respiratory problems, by 98 percent to 99.9 percent, according to the DEP.
Still, Hutchison’s organization and other environmental groups such as the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club and Citizens United for Renewable Energy argue that it would have been better to close the facility entirely and replace its output with renewable energy there and elsewhere.
“If the question is how to move toward a low-carbon future, there are clear paths,” said Hutchison, recommending wind turbines along the Great Egg Harbor Bay and installing solar panels on residents’ homes throughout the region.
Robert Marshall, executive director of the Millville-based New Jersey Energy Coalition, which advocates for the energy industry, disputed that those were viable solutions.
“There’s nothing that would have produced that level of capacity,” he said of the plant, which is expected to raise its capacity to 585 megawatts with the conversion. “Wind power doesn’t run all the time, and solar doesn’t produce all the time.”
“All things considered, you need natural gas-fired power plants in this area, absolutely,” he said.
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