Dual-fuel plant gives Chambersburg a power boost

December 09, 2003|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - More than a century after Chambersburg established its electric department, the borough is the only Pennsylvania municipality that still can generate its own power, according to Richard Hamsher, superintendent of the electric department.

While all other local governments have gotten out of the power-generation business, Chambersburg is expanding its capability, holding the official opening ceremony Monday for the $19 million dual-fuel Orchard Park Electric Generating Station.

The purpose of the plant in the Chambers-5 Business Park, however, is not to generate electricity for the routine daily needs of the 10,300 customers of the department, but to cushion the blow of higher electricity prices since the industry was deregulated several years ago, according to Borough Council President William McLaughlin.


"We not only don't have to buy at the higher rates on the market, but our excess can be sold at those higher rates to benefit our stockholders, the citizens of Chambersburg," McLaughlin said before the ceremony.

Hamsher said the borough has a pre-purchase contract with Detroit Edison to supply its power needs for the next five years.

"Whenever the amount Chambersburg needs is greater than its pre-purchased amount, we can buy off the grid or generate and get credit," Hamsher said. When the market price is higher than the borough's generating cost, it can fire up its plants and produce power for less.

The borough also will save on transmission line costs because the plant does not have to transmit power using another utility company's lines, said Hamsher, who sported a tie with a light-bulb motif.

Chambersburg now has two generating stations, one on Grant Street that can produce seven megawatts and the new 23-megawatt plant. The borough's baseload, the amount below which demand rarely falls, is 25 megawatts, Hamsher said.

Depending on the time of year, the plants can produce 60 percent to 100 percent of the baseload, even in a total power outage like the one that left 50 million people in the Northeast and upper Midwest without power in August, according to plant supervisor Harry Cooper. Peak summer load for the borough is about 52 megawatts.

The bank of four Finnish-made 18-cylinder Wartsila generators that power the turbines run on natural gas during regular operations. If the supply of gas was cut off, the huge engines can switch over to diesel fuel in a matter of minutes, Cooper said.

Moving the enormous engines was an engineering feat, according to Cooper. Once they arrived by ship in Baltimore, the units were moved on 200-foot-long trucks requiring three operators.

The trucks were restricted to only driving at night in Maryland, while only being allowed to drive by day in Pennsylvania, Cooper said. To maneuver into Chambersburg, they had to go past the borough on Interstate 81 to Carlisle, Pa., to get to an exit large enough to turn around and head south.

Despite the magnitude of the undertaking, it only took the plant about two years to go from conception to reality, Hamsher said. Actual construction did not begin until February and test runs of the plant began in September, he said.

In the early days of electrification, many communities big and small generated their own power, according to Hamsher. Chambersburg's first plant was powered by a coal-fired steam engine not much different than that on an old locomotive.

During the 1920s and 1930s, he said a lot of municipal systems were bought up by power companies. Today, he said, 34 local governments in Pennsylvania still own distribution systems, but only Chambersburg still produces electricity.

The Herald-Mail Articles