Design group reviews Penn State’s West Campus plant conversion plans

No matter which route a planned natural gas pipeline takes to get there, Penn State’s West Campus steam plant will be converted from coal to meet new federal guidelines.

The borough’s Design Review Board on Wednesday saw the preliminary plans for that change. There is no timeline for a final plan to come back to the group and the Planning Commission for further review.

The steam plant conversion would allow the university to meet new air pollution requirements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that take effect at the beginning of 2016.

A project to run a gas pipeline across town to support the steam plant conversion has drawn pushback from residents who live along its proposed path. The new line would hook to an existing line off Porter Road and travel through State College, mostly along Prospect Avenue and Burrowes Street. Residents along the route have organized in opposition of that high-pressure distribution line.

As part of the conversion, Penn State requires additional gas service, which will come from Columbia Gas.

Penn State and Columbia will give a presentation on the project during the April 1 Borough Council meeting, which starts at 7:30 p.m. at the borough building, 243 S. Allen St.

Rob Cooper, director of Penn State Energy and Engineering, has said the change will result in less truck traffic, lower fuel costs and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. If Penn State had chosen to continue fueling the plant with coal, that would have required installation of a coal scrubber, a pollution-control device.

“They are certainly ugly and tough to fit on the site,” he said.

So Penn State chose to switch to natural gas at the west plant. The east plant already operates with natural gas, and increasing capacity there would have cost $60 million to $70 million more than the approximately $48 million west project, Cooper said.

The conversion will involve replacing equipment inside the plant, which was not presented Wednesday. Engineer Jim California with Buchart Horn Inc. and Penn State project manager Jeff Spackman presented information about changes to the outside of the building, fronting West College Avenue.

DRB member Richard Devon asked Wednesday if the plant conversion plans would change if the pipeline is rerouted.

“It will land here,” Spackman said. “Columbia Gas has an existing line that serves the plant.”

That equipment is surrounded by a chain-link fence at the front of the plant, and will be replaced by a brick wall, creating a screen, and automatic fence that blocks the driveway. Demolition of the smokestack and unneeded accessory buildings will be part of a future phase.

Double-walled, above-ground diesel tanks will be added behind the plant, holding backup fuel and fuel for electric generators.

Other comments on the plans were to suggest extending the sidewalk over the plant driveway, giving priority to pedestrians and, if it fits the scope of work, to expand the sidewalk along West College Avenue to 10 or 12 feet.

Planning staffer Meagan Tuttle raised the latter issue, as widening the sidewalk to better accommodate cyclists and pedestrians is part of the borough’s current downtown master plan process.