Prove your humanity

The biggest new natural-gas power plant in a state awash with them is taking shape on a mountain ridge overlooking the community it cleaved apart.

First came questions about pollution and property values. Lawyers and public-records requests followed. Now this borough of 4,500, where it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that everybody knows everybody, is embroiled in a full-out political revolt.

Pro-plant incumbents up for election this year — two council members and the mayor — were booted in the May primary. A ticket organized by plant opponents boasts five people on the ballot in next week’s general election — candidates for all the open council seats and even school board director, which shows just how far the fault lines over the Lackawanna Energy Center extend. Relationships have been upended. Mistrust in local government has surged.

“It’s like a raw nerve,” said Ellen Nielsen, president of the school board.

Pennsylvania has long been a power-plant colossus, exporting electricity to other states because it makes more than it uses — historically with coal and nuclear. The Jessup plant is at the vanguard of a new boom fueled by the state’s plentiful natural gas.

The rapid reshaping of U.S. electric power comes with some unpredictable, long-lasting implications.

Only Texas has more planned gas-fired generation in the queue, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Energy firms have proposed over 40 gas-fired projects in Pennsylvania since 2011, including in Jessup’s neighbor Archbald. Fourteen are under construction or operating. At 1,485 megawatts, Jessup’s Lackawanna Energy Center is one of the largest in the works nationwide, according to EIA data — part of a dramatic coast-to-coast expansion of gas-fired plants.

Electricity needs aren’t driving this upturn. Instead, in this part of the country, it’s developers are hoping cheap gas will fuel profitable power plants in an increasingly crowded market. In the large, interstate electrical grid that includes Pennsylvania, the gas-plant rush is so huge it’s “poised to create a glut of supply” amid “little prospect of growth in demand,” credit-rating agency Moody’s Investors Service warned in May.

Customers will likely benefit from lower electricity bills, at least for a while. People who live near coal plants that close in the face of this stiff competition will breathe healthier air. But the rapid reshaping of U.S. electric power comes with some unpredictable, long-lasting implications.