UPPER TOWNSHIP — Time may be running out for the last coal-fired power plant in New Jersey.
According to Mayor Richard Palombo, crews are in the process of decommissioning two of the power-generating units at the BL England power plant on the bank of Great Egg Harbor Bay. Regional utility officials say upgrades to transmission systems could make the plant unneeded as soon as May.
BL England did not respond to a request for comment. The posted number for plant owner RC Cape May Holdings LLC did not accept messages, and there was no response to requests for comment from Houston-based Rockland Capital Investments, which describes RC Cape May Holdings as an affiliate.
The plant has brought jobs and electricity to the area for 57 years but has also been a source of concern over air quality.
According to state reports, the plant has released thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and other emissions each year. The plant had been found in violation of the federal clean air act more than a decade ago.
BL England, the cooling tower and smokestack of which are visible for miles in northern Cape May County, seemed destined to close more than a year ago, but that was held off by a determination that the plant is needed to ensure the reliability of the power grid in South Jersey.
PJM Interconnection, which operates the power grid BL England feeds into, called for the plant to remain open until upgrades could be completed to the grid. Known as RMR, or Reliability Must Run, it means PJM pays the generator to remain active so the power grid can be upgraded to remain reliable, said Jeff Shields, a spokesman for PJM.
“The RMR is expected to be needed until the identified transmission upgrades are completed. The upgrades are expected to be completed by May 2019,” Shields wrote in an email.
If the grid upgrades are completed as scheduled, the plant could then be decommissioned, Shields said.
Frank Tedesco, a spokesman for Atlantic City Electric, said he could not comment on the status of the plant, saying all questions would be better directed to PJM Interconnection.
“I can tell you that we are performing work to enhance the local energy grid through a series of system enhancements to the local Atlantic City Electric transmission system, which is the system responsible for moving power from generating stations to the facilities that deliver energy to customers across the area,” Tedesco wrote in an email.
That work includes upgrades to existing transmission lines and substations and traverses five counties and 13 municipalities, he said. Most of it will take place within an existing right-of-way from Atlantic City Electric’s substation in Salem County to Lewis substation in Egg Harbor Township.
On Dec. 28, 2016, the company submitted a generator deactivation notification for the closing of generating units 2 and 3. The plan called for deactivation as of April 2017, but the reliability finding held that closing off for two years.
The owners planned to retrofit the coal plant to use natural gas, to be brought in by pipeline. But the proposed route took that pipeline along roads through the Pinelands, an environmentally sensitive and protected area.
A fight over that pipeline began years ago and has seen two narrow votes in front of the Pinelands Commission and more than one lawsuit. The commission approved the 22-mile pipeline in February 2017, after rejecting it in 2014. But the Sierra Club and other groups filed a lawsuit to block construction.
“The gas pipeline has not been resolved. The owners have been steadfast that they would have to decommission if they could not convert to natural gas,” said Palombo. “It’s my understanding that they’ve already started closing down two of the generators.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, does not expect the pipeline to be built, at least for the foreseeable future.
“It’s in limbo. The pipeline itself cannot be built because it’s still in court,” Tittel said, adding if the plant is closed, there will be little reason for the pipeline. “Our feeling is if the plant’s not needed it should shut down. It will be a major source of pollution.”
Tittel argues upcoming offshore wind projects off Atlantic and Cape May counties would negate the need for BL England.
The plant has meant big money for Upper Township. According to Barbara Spiegel, the township’s chief financial officer, the township receives $6.2 million a year in energy tax receipts, which funds about half of the township budget. Palombo expects that income to continue after the power-generating units are decommissioned.