Coal is on its way out in New England and the future of the region’s largest coal-fired power plant, Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, is uncertain.
Just six months after they purchased Brayton Point in a package deal with two other power plants, new owners Energy Capital Partners recently declared the facility outmoded and announced plans to stop generating electricity there in 2017.
Although Brayton Point has been operating far below capacity and cheap natural gas has pushed many coal plants across the country out of business, the decision caught local leaders by surprise.
The plant has long been the largest employer and taxpayer in town and New Jersey-based private-equity firm Energy Capital Partners has given little indication of what they intend to do with the 1,530-megawatt facility when it stops burning coal. The jobs of 240 plant workers could be lost when the plant closes its doors.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen with it,” said Donald P. Setters Jr., chairman of the Somerset Board of Selectmen. “The new owners really aren’t in the power business per se. They’ve never said what they intend to do, but I am sure they want to keep it as a power plant.”
If burning coal under increasingly strict environmental rules is uneconomical, the obvious alternative would be to convert Brayton Point to run on natural gas, the fuel that’s now dominating electrical generation due to cheap domestic supplies.
In Salem, Mass., Brayton Point’s former owner Dominion sold another coal-fired plant last year to a separate New Jersey company that plans to convert it to natural gas.
And indeed, that’s the scenario most local leaders appear to prefer.
Setters said a conversion to gas “would be ideal.”
State Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, who has been named chairman of a task force studying the future of Brayton Point, said the existing utility infrastructure at Brayton Point makes converting it attractive.
“It makes a lot of sense that that option is explored.” Rodrigues said. “On that property is all the transmission infrastructure. All the transmission lines are now plugged into the coal-generating plant, but it would make sense to substitute gas.”