TOLEDO, OHIO: About a dozen natural gas power plants are being built or are in the planning stages in Ohio, putting the industry on track to replace coal as the dominant source of electricity in the state.
A move last week by President Donald Trump’s administration to roll back environmental restrictions in an effort to help the coal industry isn’t likely to stop the shift.
What’s driving the transition is the cheap cost of natural gas from eastern Ohio’s shale fields, making it difficult for coal and nuclear plants to compete.
One industry leader says there’s still room for 15 more natural gas plants to come online within the next decade.
“Ohio is in the catbird’s seat,” said Bill Siderewicz, owner of Boston-based Clean Energy Future LLC. “Not many states have this huge population with abundant, low-cost gas in your backyard.”
His company has two natural gas plants under construction and two more under development. Its $850 million plant just east of Toledo is slated to open by midsummer.
Most of the projects are on the eastern side of the state near the natural gas reserves. But new natural gas pipelines in the works should open up other areas to new plants.
Developers say that while Trump’s pledge to revitalize the coal industry may help keep open a few coal plants a little longer, it can’t change that the natural gas plants are cheaper to operate and more advanced.
“With these pipelines being planned and power generators being planned, that will drive out the least economic fuel. And that’s coal right now,” said Don Mason, a member of the state’s Oil and Gas Commission.
The head of Ohio’s coal association thinks that coal still has a strong future and that Trump’s stance creates a more level playing field for all sources of energy. “We’re in a much better position to compete with natural gas,” said Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association.
Coal currently accounts for almost 60 percent of the electricity used in Ohio while natural gas makes up about a quarter.
What will have a big impact on whether natural gas supplants coal is whether Ohio lawmakers change regulations and allow for subsidies to make the coal plants more competitive.
Both Akron-based FirstEnergy and Columbus-based American Electric Power want to see changes to help protect their plants. FirstEnergy said late last year that it will sell or close its big coal and nuclear power plants within two years if nothing is done.
“What’s happening at the state level is the only thing that matters to us,” Siderewicz said.
Another natural gas plant developer, NTE Energy, plans to open a plant in Middletown, north of Cincinnati, in about a year, but plans for a second plant near Circleville, south of Columbus, have been put on hold.
Part of the reason is because of the uncertainty over what the state is going to do along with waiting for the right signals from the market, said Tim Eves, the company’s development director.
But he said it’s only a matter of time before the state sees more closings of older coal plants.