Impervious Surfaces & Embedded Value

(Corrections and clarifications welcome. For job titles, scroll down for “Who’s Who” at the Right to Know page.)

Lots of interesting small puzzle pieces fell into place at last night’s Planning Commission meeting.

Engineering

From Rob Cooper, we learned that each of the two gas-fired boilers planned for Phase 1 only needs 45 psi of natural gas supply to operate, an amount that may be well within the capacity of the current 6-inch pipeline feeding the plant. He said a future project phase will add a third 6 megawatt gas-fired turbine, but did not say when that would come online.

From Cooper, we also learned that Penn State will not be the only end user of the new supply.

A key part of the conversion project is installation/upgrade to Columbia Gas distribution hub facilities which would “step down” the pressure from the 12-inch pipeline, send a portion of the gas to the steam boilers, and send the rest of the gas back out of the plant into distribution pipes to provide gas service to homes and businesses on the southwest side of State College and perhaps on into Ferguson Township. Apparently that pass-through feature is already a part of the power plant, even with the lower pressure supply currently available.

According to Carl Hess, a 20-year-old court case (not identified by name) has established that private, profit-driven corporations may operate from tax-exempt public property under contractual easements. Since Penn State now has a 30-year contract with Columbia Gas, this suggests to me that the contract includes an exchange of value. For example, Columbia Gas may have given Penn State a discount on gas supply costs for the duration of the contract, in exchange for the continued easement allowing the gas company to expand services to additional customers southwest of campus. Without access to the contract documents, we don’t know.

Looking at the architectural renderings last night, particularly the view from Burrowes Street looking down toward the power plant – with ample room for parking for visitors coming to take tours of the plant – it seems that the entire facility may have been designed as a showpiece to demonstrate small-town-sized gas-fired power plants tucked into urban settings, as a way to promote natural gas plants in other communities.

Permitting Authorities & Safety

From Borough Planner Anne Messner, we learned that the State College Planning Department plays no role whatsoever in safety assessments, compliance or planning. Their only involvement is reviewing the amount of impervious surfaces before and after proposed construction to ensure compliance with applicable regulations, plus a little bit about aesthetics in terms of building facade treatments, fencing styles, etc.

From Planning Commission Chair Evan Myers, we learned that the Planning Commission is even less procedurally important than Messner; they just listen to information from staff and applicants, and make non-binding suggestions to Borough Council.

IF there are any safety reviews (which is not clear at this time) they fall under the PA Uniform Construction Code, and they are conducted by staff at the PA Department of Environmental Protection and the PA Department of Labor and Industry.

The architect – Jim California, who said he also plays no role in safety assessments, compliance or planning – mentioned that a 200-page set of drawings was reviewed and approved by Labor & Industry staff sometime in the last few months. If I understood correctly, the L & I review was specific to the two 20,000-gallon above- ground diesel fuel tanks that will be installed on the site to run generators. The date of L & I review, docket number and other details are unknown, but those records can be tracked down now that we know they exist.

Regarding safety issues like radon and other toxic emissions, DEP would have jurisdiction. Again, Messner, California and Cooper did not personally have knowledge of any potentially relevant safety laws, haven’t done any environmental testing in the downtown area around the plant, and didn’t offer the public DEP review session dates or docket numbers. But we now know DEP has had a look at the West Campus Steam Plant conversion project and can pursue the thread through Right to Know.

From Messner, we learned that there was a State College Zoning Hearing Board hearing “late last year” when the zoning board gave PSU a variance for the height of the exhaust stacks, which will exceed UPD zoning district height limitations. The zoning meeting date is currently unknown, but records can be tracked down. Messner said UPD zoning regulations have no safety-related provisions, and amending UPD regulations is not solely within Borough government control: changes must also be approved by other (unspecified) agencies.

Messner said that she is the only person authorized to decide whether the coal-to-gas fuel conversion qualifies as a “change of use” under Borough zoning codes, that she doesn’t regard it as a change of use because it’s still a power plant, and that residents may appeal her determination by filing appeals with the Zoning Hearing Board. Standing may be limited to those who live or own businesses within 200 feet of the plant; that would be up to the Zoning Board solicitor.

Right to Know

Matt Dahlhausen reported that the state legislation to apply Right to Know to PSU goes to the state House in 20 days, from there to Senate and then to Corbett. So maybe in a couple of months we’ll have a sliver of access to PSU documents. Matt also pointed out that, to meet the goal of 80 – 90% emissions reductions in 40 years, Penn State and the Borough will both need to reduce emissions by 3 to 5% every year.

Last night Rob Cooper confirmed that Penn State does have a Seven Year Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan – not available to the public – calling for a 17.5% reduction in seven years. He expressed irritation with those who see the natural gas conversion as a dead-end energy strategy, touting the University’s past conservation efforts – which have, he said, reduced steam demand in recent years – and talked up Penn State’s future plans for more conservation, renewables and zero-energy buildings.

He didn’t explain how the 30-year Columbia Gas service contract (currently in a 90-day delay) fit into that plan, but did talk about the “embedded value” of the existing utility infrastructure in place across the campus, presumably to make a point about the stranded value of those past investments should the Trustees decide to convert to renewables without the intermediate gas step.

Cooper also said an alternatives analysis document for the West Campus Steam Plant conversion exists, but it is not available to the public.

Borough Council Action

We learned that the Borough Council had a second executive session (after the one they tacked onto the May 13 Borough Council meeting) and held it Thursday, May 16, rather than Friday, May 17. No notice provided. I’m checking with the PA Freedom of Information Coalition about whether the Sunshine Law requires notice of executive sessions, and if so, in what form.

Citizen Action

To put those puzzle pieces in context (a little), residents are beginning to coalesce around the idea of pushing for a community-controlled sustainable energy planning process that includes enforcement teeth. CELDF has draft ordinances that we might use to begin the process.

Speaking only for myself, it’s fine if Penn State administrators want to make short-sighted and hazardous energy decisions in secrecy based on bad data, so long as they keep the risks confined to campus. If students and staff don’t want to bear those risks any more than State College residents do, it’s up to them to duke it out with the Board of Trustees.

However, the size and features of the current West Campus Steam Plant plans mean that Penn State is attempting to make energy policy decisions beyond its borders, for the people who live in surrounding communities, by locking in fossil fuel supply systems designed to serve non-University customers. That’s not cool.

Like the Third Little Pig with the bricks, we have the technical tools to build our community energy systems to be more resilient to the Big Bad Wolf of energy price shocks.

We just need the foresight, persistence and political framework to use them.

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