GenOn had announced plans to close the coal-fire electric plant in West Pittsburg because of environmental restrictions, but new owner NRG Energy said it will conver the facility to natural gas, saving about 40 jobs.

The company that owns the West Pittsburg electric plant plans to convert its fuel source from coal to natural gas.

David Gaier of NRG Energy said the plans would cancel deactivation of the power plant in April 2015, and instead would generate electricity as a “peaker” plant by piping in gas instead of burning coal. He explained that a “peaker” plant supplies extra power to the grid on days of peak power demands.

NRG Energy, based in Princeton, N.J., with dual headquarters in Houston, merged with the Houston-based GenOn Energy Inc. on Dec. 14 and took over its plants, Gaier said.

GenOn had announced plans a year ago to shut down the West Pittsburg plant in 2016 because it would not comply with upcoming environmental regulations.

Instead, Gaier said NRG energy is proceeding with its gas addition project, which is expected to be completed in May 2016.

“Our intention is to bring natural gas to the station, and at a point in the future cease operating on coal and begin operating on natural gas,” he said.

The plans involve contracting with a company to build a pipeline to the plant, Gaier said.

Between now and completion, the company will have to obtain state environmental approval for the gas, obtain property tax reductions to coincide with the diminished operating profile of the plan, perform detailed engineering, confirm the company’s capital expenditure requirements, obtain permits for building the pipeline and bringing gas to the station and convert the boiler to install natural gas burners.

Gaier said he does not yet have a cost estimate for the project.

The conversion will maintain most of the 40 existing jobs at the plant, he said, and will create 50 to 100 temporary constructions jobs for six to nine months.

The plant’s capability now is 330 megawatts. Gaier said he does not yet know yet what the additional capability will be.

Last year, LS Power of St. Louis announced it would build a $750 million gas-powered electrical plant in North Beaver Township. That project would create up to 500 construction and 25 full-time permanent jobs. The plant, which would generate 900 megawatts of power, is expected to begin operating in 2016 or 2017.

Gaier said he doesn’t see the West Pittsburg plant competing with LS Power.

“We operate on our business model to meet our business needs,” he said.

Lawrence County Commissioner Dan Vogler, a former employee of Penn Power, which once owned the West Pittsburg plant, looks upon NRG Energy’s announcement as positive economic news for the county.

“It’s certainly good news compared to the earlier news we had that the plant was going to shut down,” he said. “It’s a reflection of the change in the utility industry, moving away from coal and in the direction of natural gas.”

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