Bruce Mansfield coal power plant idled because of low power prices

For almost three weeks, FirstEnergy Corp.’s largest coal plant, Bruce Mansfield in Shippingport, has been sitting idle with no restart date planned.

The 340 workers employed there still come to work every morning — there’s plenty of maintenance work to be done, said Herman Marshman Jr., a 32-year veteran of the plant and president of the local union representing electrical workers at Bruce Mansfield. But the boilers sit quiet, waiting for power prices to catch up with the cost of running the plant.

Akron-based FirstEnergy made the decision to take the nearly 2,500 megawatt plant offline late last month because of sustained low prices, said Stephanie Walton, a spokeswoman for the company.

She said it’s not unusual for generators to respond to market conditions by idling plants for some period of time. But Mr. Marshman, with three decades of experience at the power station, said the last time all three Bruce Mansfield units were shut off was in 1999.

“And we’ve never been off for this extended period of time,” he said.

Ms. Walton said FirstEnergy doesn’t discuss such events for competitive reasons. She declined to say if the company has idled any other power plants for economic reasons.

“The plant does have a history of taking individual units offline when market prices don’t support their operation,” she said about Bruce Mansfield. “That’s the same for any competitive plant. It’s common practice.”

The dynamics that pushed Bruce Mansfield off the grid collided a mild winter with increasing competition from cheap natural gas.

The Energy Information Administration recently released data showing that natural gas dominated coal in electric power generation for seven months last year. That’s a record, as coal has historically been the dominant fuel for the industry.

Electricity prices “fell significantly in 2008 and continued to trail down for years, but then hit new lows in 2016,” Ms. Walton said.

Bruce Mansfield is still offering its services to the grid every day, as it is required to do in exchange for receiving capacity payments from PJM Interconnection, a Valley Forge-based grid operator that coordinates the flow of electricity for 13 states. It tells PJM at what price it would be economic to run the plant and PJM determines if that prices is low enough to dispatch the power plant the next day.

Ms. Walton stressed that the company considers Bruce Mansfield an important player in its generation fleet and has not veered off its plans for projects at the site, such as the $260 million coal ash dewatering facility begun in October.

FirstEnergy hasn’t laid off any workers as a result of idling the plant but some of its suppliers have.

Carmeuse Lime and Stone, a Pittsburgh-based company that provides power plants with lime for use in their scrubbers notified employees of layoffs at its Maysville operation in Kentucky associated with Bruce Mansfield’s halt.

Nearly half of the mine’s 161 workers will be laid off in the coming weeks because of the unexpected and sudden drop in demand from Bruce Mansfield, the operation’s largest customer.

“Given all of the information currently before us, we do not expect this layoff to last more than a few months,” Kevin Whyte, Carmeuse’s general counsel wrote in a memo to employees.

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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