SEPTA Proposes Gas-Fired Electricity Plant for Nicetown

Karen Melton, for the Shuttle

SEPTA is expected to make a decision in the next few months about whether to build a natural-gas electric-power generation plant at its Midvale bus and train maintenance complex in Nicetown (map). So far, no public hearings have been scheduled to inform neighbors or find out if they support such a project.

Last October, SEPTA authorized funding for Noresco LLC to design a plant that would produce 8.6 megawatts of electricity, a portion of the power consumed by regional rail lines north of the Temple University stop. If approved, Noresco would build and operate the plant, selling electricity to SEPTA for a 20-year period.

Opponents of the plant hope to convince SEPTA to invest in transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources rather than committing to 20 more years of burning fossil fuels.

SEPTA’s own sustainability plan, currently being updated, commits to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and improving regional air quality by implementing a variety of energy-efficiency measures, building a new energy storage system and adding 25 electric buses to the fleet next year. The cost of the Nicetown plant is expected to be covered under the Pennsylvania Guaranteed Energy Savings Act.

SEPTA has pitched the plant as providing “resilience” for the authority’s power grid as well reducing energy consumption and pollution overall. 

Opponents take issue with these assumptions, and 350 Philly is working to inform Philadelphians about the proposal. A letter asking the SEPTA board to reject the plant and instead invest in renewables had gathered signatures from 25 organizations and community groups by mid-July.

With respect to emissions, studies find that when methane leakage at the well and during transportation are considered, the climate-change impact of natural gas is just as significant as coal.

From a cost perspective, opponents of the gas plant argue that during the 20-year contract, the price of gas will only go up, while the price of renewables will continue to go down.

Pollution from natural-gas combustion is known to produce NOx, a precursor to ground-level ozone (or smog), as well as large quantities of ultrafine particulates. Particulates are considered to be a significant health risk, although there is currently no established standard, and they do not travel as far as larger particulates.

The Nicetown neighborhood is already burdened with a great deal of air pollution. The plant would be located next to SEPTA’s Midvale Depot, which serves 300 diesel buses, and the Roberts train yard, and a few blocks from the Roosevelt Expressway. In 2012, a Philadelphia Health Management Corp. study estimated that 31 percent of children in the adjacent 19140 zip code had been diagnosed with asthma.

Other transit agencies around the world are beginning to invest in renewable energy to power their trains, subways, buses and buildings. SEPTA has an opportunity to join with these leaders and chart a path directly to 21st century energy technology rather than build a new fossil fuel-based plant.

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Karen Melton is a 350 Philly volunteer.