The conversion of Cape May County’s B.L. England Generating Station from coal and oil power to natural gas will be a massive project that is planned to take nearly four years and cost as much as $400 million.

The pale blue plant in the Beesleys Point section of Upper Township was built on the Great Egg Harbor Bay in 1963, making it one of the oldest power plants in the state, but the complete overhaul will extend its lifespan for about 40 more years.

“This is breathing new life into the plant,” said Jim Maiz, senior vice president for RC Cape May Holdings, the unit of Rockland Capital investment firm that oversees the facility.

The goal also is to allow everyone nearby to breathe easier, since natural gas burns dramatically cleaner than coal and oil. That’s something praised by even those environmentalists who have used the plant’s exhaust stack as a lightning rod for criticism.

But a lot needs to happen before B.L. England is fully repowered, and the effects of the conversion will have a wide range of impacts elsewhere.

All of this is just beginning now after RC Cape May and the state Department of Environmental Protection signed an agreement in May to address alleged federal Clean Air Act violations left over from the previous owners.

Atlantic City Electric sold the plant for a mere $12 million in 2006, but that left RC Cape May in charge of upgrading the plant. The new agreement amends several past plans to lessen the facility’s pollution output.

Based on the new plan, B.L. England has to be fully repowered by May 1, 2016.

In the meantime, one of its coal-fired units must permanently cease operating by September 2013, and its other coal unit must shut down by May 2015, to be retrofitted for natural gas. Its third oil-fired unit will be allowed to continue operating until the other remaining unit is operating with natural gas power.

Even with one fewer unit, state and company officials said, the plant’s maximum output could increase from 450 megawatts to 570 megawatts through efficiencies in its new system.

Of course, there also needs to be a way to get the new fuel to the plant. Freight trains now carry coal to the plant, but natural gas will have to be pumped through a new underground pipeline.

That aspect of the project alone will be a monumental undertaking.

South Jersey Gas is developing a way to send a 22-mile, high-pressure pipe from the Cumberland Energy Center in Millville to B.L. England. Once connected, the plant is expected to be the Folsom-based company’s largest single customer.

B.L. England may draw an amount of gas equivalent to 25,000 homes per year, or nearly 8 percent of the company’s current residential customers.

Running that line likely will take more than a year of permitting. About 15 miles of the line would run through the Pinelands; the last seven would be through sensitive wetlands areas overseen by the DEP. The state Board of Public Utilities also has to sign-off on the plan’s design.

Benefits down the line

About 75 people work at B.L. England, but the conversion will create 200 to 300 jobs during two years of construction, RC Cape May’s Maiz said.

“From an employment opportunity, it’s a great thing for not only the township but also the county,” said Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo.

It is not clear if jobs would be lost by no longer running trains filled with coal or oil to the facility. The railroad there is owned by Conrail and its parent company, Norfolk Southern.

Those freight trains are the only railcars that regularly use the line from Winslow Township, Camden County, to Cape May County. Cape May Seashore Lines runs limited seasonal passenger service along a section of the line from Buena Vista Township to Tuckahoe in Upper Township.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon declined to comment. Conrail spokesman John Enright said no plans have been made at this early stage, but he doubted it would affect employment at the company.

At the very least, it will make the nights quieter for people who live near those train tracks.

Keeping the plant viable for decades also means that the township will continue to receive nearly $6.2 million in utility tax revenue in the form of state aid for hosting the facility. That money allowed the township to avoid a local purpose tax until last year. When it enacted the new rate, it automatically raised another $22,338 from B.L. England’s property valued at $24 million.

The ecological benefits of the project are even more impressive than the economics.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, B.L. England pumps about 604,000 tons of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the air every year.

Natural gas will dramatically reduce those pollutants. The EPA says that the average natural gas plant produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third of the nitrogen oxides and only 1 percent of the sulfur oxides emitted from the average coal plant.

The state and RC Cape May say the reductions at B.L. England will be even more significant when comparing its current emissions to the advanced technology that is proposed.

The latest agreement also requires the plant to preserve 150 acres of wetlands surrounding the plant, restricting it to any future development or disturbance, unless the new pipeline needs to be laid through it.

A timely solution?

While environmental advocates commend all these changes, they also demand that they be done as soon as possible and not be delayed beyond the May 1, 2016, deadline.

RC Cape May already has submitted an application for permit modification, but the company has until December 2013 to change its mind about repowering the facility.

If it decides against continuing with the plan, it must shut down its remaining coal-fired unit by May 1, 2014, leaving it with only its oil-fired unit.

If it decides to continue with the conversion but does not think it can have it completed by deadline, then it can request an extension, but it would still have to cease operating its remaining coal unit by May 1, 2015.

And even if the remaining coal unit is shut down at that point, the agreement says the move could be reversed by a state or federal mandate or decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that shutting it down would “adversely affect the transmission of electric energy, or would cause or result in an electric emergency.”

That line disturbed Bill Wolfe, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who said he thinks the latest agreement is just another way to extend the deadlines for cleaning up the site.

“That’s my take on this agreement,” he said. “All of (the agreements) are a series of delays.”

RC Cape May’s Maiz characterized it differently. He said the conversion would result in a much cleaner plant than had been previously designed with other coal pollution controls, and it was simply the best solution for everyone involved.

“This was the path forward,” he said. “With something this significant, you want to take the path of least resistance.”

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