Shale gas boom has utilities rushing to increase electricity supply
One of the largest electricity providers in the Marcellus Shale gas region is planning to spend $35 million in infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the increasing need for power at natural gas processing plants and compressor stations. FirstEnergy Corp. recently announced plans to expand electric substations and upgrade large electric power lines.
Tim Myers, a spokesman for the utility West Penn Power, a FirstEnergy company serving western Pennsylvania, says the amount of electricity used by plants that separate methane from natural gas liquids like ethane and butane, are enormous.
“We’re seeing these [electrical] loads accelerating very quickly,” said Meyers. “And it’s a new world for us.”
Myers says processing natural gas uses much more electricity than the typical manufacturer, or even coal operations.
“We have a [natural gas processing] plant in nearby West Virginia that wasn’t there four years ago,” said Myers. “In that time, it used as much or more electricity than all the coal mines we serve in that area of West Virginia, and it took those coal mines 30 years to use that much electricity.”
In other words, Myers says power use at that natural gas processing plant has already eclipsed 30 years of electrical consumption by coal mining activities in the same service area.
Another complication for utilities is that natural gas wells, compressor stations and processing plants are in rural areas, where high voltage transmission lines and substations are typically not installed.
The bulk of the investment by FirstEnergy, $31 million, will be spent on a substation in Washington County, close to Burgettstown, where a new Marcellus Shale gas processor is planned. Substations take high voltage electricity traveling through transmission lines, and convert it to a lower voltage that can be safely consumed by the new plant. FirstEnergy says the substation, scheduled for completion in 2016, would also help improve reliability for the more than 40,000 residential and business customers in Washington and Allegheny counties.
The shale gas boom has also prompted the need to upgrade high-voltage transmission lines, which can sag under the weight of heavy electrical loads. This usually happens in the warmer weather when the demand for electricity is higher. So FirstEnergy plans to spend $2.3 million replacing current electrical poles along a nine-mile, 138-kilovolt line that runs from a current substation in West Virginia to the high-voltage substation near Burgettstown.
“We need to raise the clearances,” said Myers. “The lines will be higher off the ground.”
Another $1 million project will help to increase the amount of power flowing to an existing substation near Houston, Pa.
FirstEnergy says new Marcellus gas plants planned for their territory in western Pennsylvania will add a demand of about 370 megawatts of power. That’s the equivalent of supplying power to more than 180,000 new homes.
“Our investment in new transmission facilities directly supports the fast-growing Marcellus Shale industry,” said Carl Bridenbaugh, vice president, Transmission at FirstEnergy in a release. “This industry continues to generate jobs and economic prosperity across western Pennsylvania, and we are working quickly to upgrade our system to continue providing our customers access to safe, reliable and affordable electric power.”
Although the natural gas power plant operators will have to pay to increase the load. Some of the costs are spread among customers in the entire Mid-Atlantic region. But Myers says the upgrade helps all consumers.
“There is a benefit for many customers across many areas because we’re reinforcing the grid,” said Myers.
FirstEnergy expects more shale-gas related electricity upgrades.
“I do anticipate that this will continue to be an important part of revenue for our company,” said Myers.