Pa.’s largest coal plant is retiring. Could it transition to renewables?
Homer City Generating Station has been used to delay environmental regulations. Could the infamous site become a symbol for the just transition?
(Photo by Patricia Toth McCormick/Capital & Main).
By Audrey Carleton
The largest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania recently became the latest to announce its retirement plans, prompting questions about its future use and highlighting the debate over the state’s transition to a green economy.
After wavering in and out of bankruptcy and operating at less than 50% capacity for the last seven years and at around 20% capacity since 2022, per the Sierra Club, the Homer City Generating Station in Indiana County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, will cease operations on July 1. It is now the fifth of five coal-fired power plants in the commonwealth to create plans for decommissioning by 2028.
“Coal died in Pennsylvania quite a few years ago at this point,” said Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate at environmental advocacy group PennFuture. At one point, coal accounted for some 90% of the commonwealth’s energy generation, he says. As of 2021, it accounted for 12% of the state’s energy generation, compared to 53% from natural gas. In fact, at least one of the other last remaining coal-fired power plants in the state is being converted to natural gas (contingent on securing financing), as a suite of others have in the past.
“The writing has been on the wall,” Altenburg said. “Nobody has been announcing plans to extend the lives of the plants that they have. It’s just been a matter of, ‘How much money can they make before the plants retire?’”
The 2,000-megawatt facility had the capacity to power 2 million homes and currently employs 129 people, per StateImpact Pennsylvania. Those jobs will be phased out in a tiered fashion.
Homer City told StateImpact that a regulation the state recently adopted to comply with federal Clean Air Act limits on nitrogen oxides, alongside rising costs of coal production and shrinking costs of natural gas, were responsible for the plant’s demise. The regulations, the plant said, imposed an “excessive economic and operational burden,” StateImpact reported. The Homer City plant’s fragile economic standing has also been seized upon as a symbol of the risk that entering a regional carbon trading program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), could pose to the state’s dwindling coal industry and its workers.
But Altenburg says neither regulation was the nail in the coffin for Homer City. “It’s clear that the thing that has hurt coal is that gas has become very very cheap,” he said.
And some are trying to forestall the inevitable. In the wake of the announcement, legislators who’ve long sided with the fossil fuel industry in opposition to RGGI have vowed to rectify the plant’s closure.
“My hope is that [this proposed closure] will not actually occur,” said Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, who has fervently opposed the state’s entry into RGGI.
“You’re going to hurt many, many other businesses in the community that rely on the income from the plant,” Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, told the Pittsburgh Business Times . Struzzi has also introduced legislation to forestall RGGI in the past.
Altenburg, as well as Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter Director Tom Schuster, are just as worried about the jobs that the greater town of Homer City will lose when the plant closes. But Schuster’s focused on what’s next for the region.
“I think that the site itself is prime for a redevelopment for cleaner energy,” Schuster told Capital & Main. Reclaiming and redeveloping the site into a solar farm or battery storage facility would serve the aim of building out the state’s renewable energy sector while offering laid-off coal workers a place to land.
There are currently a slew of political levers that could help make this happen. The federal Inflation Reduction Act, for starters, offers $4 billion to communities with retired coal plants (broadly known as “energy communities”) via the Investment and Production Tax Credits. A renewable energy developer could cash in on these tax incentives should they opt to site their facilities in Homer City.
Its existing connection to PJM, the grid operator that manages Pennsylvania’s energy generation, also makes the plant a competitive site for other energy developers, Schuster says. Amid the renewables rush, PJM has experienced a backlog of requests for new interconnections to the regional grid; Homer City’s existing transmission lines would save any new buyer the time and labor involved in sitting in this queue.
“I expect that there are probably already multiple inquiries being made by developers to see if they can redevelop the site for cleanup,” he said.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in April that a solar project was already “in wait for the area.”
Capital & Main reached out to Homer City borough government and the broader township to inquire about pending plans for the site but did not hear back.
Altenburg, for his part, is wary of the possibility that the site will be redeveloped to serve the production of a yet unproven form of clean energy, like blue hydrogen, which uses natural gas as a feedstock and requires the use of carbon capture, which has a less-than-promising success rate. The commonwealth is currently vying for federal dollars to build out Hydrogen Production — but using Homer City’s land to serve this aim would be antithetical to a broader green transition, Altenburg says.
“These aren’t going to be environmentally friendly sites,” he said. “Jumping into hydrogen is the new shiny thing. But it’s not clear at all that it’s going to work.”
Audrey Carleton is a reporter for Capital & Main, where this story first appeared.
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