Ron Kiecana knew several years ago that companies drilling in the Marcellus shale would need more customers in the power sector to use their gas, especially in Pennsylvania where pipelines and export options were limited.
At the same time, he saw a move away from massive power plants to more localized “distributed energy” resources built around renewables and other smaller sources of electricity.
The company he leads, IMG Midstream, aims to address both needs by building and operating 20-megawatt, gas-fired plants — each designed to power about 13,000 homes — in the heart of the Marcellus.
“These small-scale projects are located close to the source of where natural gas is being produced,” said Kiecana, CEO of the company that recently moved its headquarters to the North Shore from Wexford.
Less than four years after its founding, IMG in October brought online its first power plant, called Roundtop Energy, in Auburn, Susquehanna County. Its second plant, Beaver Dam in Bradford County, went into full operation last week, and two more will come online in that county this year.
The company, which is backed by New York private equity firm Bregal Energy, has a goal of doubling its size by the end of 2017 and having 500 megawatts — 25 plants — installed and running in five years. It has 20 employees at three locations.
Kiecana declined to say how many plants privately held IMG must build to become profitable through sales of electricity to the grid.
“We’re very lean and very nimble. I think it’s very important for our business model to stay that way,” said Kiecana, who has 24 years in the energy business, most recently working in the renewables space.
IMG’s facilities are coming online at a time when gas-fired plants are increasingly seen as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to coal-fired plants, which are closing because of tighter pollution rules and competition. Natural gas prices this spring hit 17-year lows.
The smaller footprint of IMG’s power plants and the company’s approach to working with communities help it avoid the opposition and not-in-my-backyard backlash some developers of larger plants have recently faced.
Taking up a 70-by-110-foot space (a little larger than a professional basketball court) on about 5 acres of land, and producing little noise or emissions, each plant has “a low environmental impact, which is important to a lot of people when you’re doing community outreach and they have concerns,” said Joe Broadwater, IMG’s vice president for operations and asset management.
Officials in Auburn had no complaints from neighbors or about their dealings with IMG, township Supervisor Dan Trivett said.
“They were really good at communicating with us. They invited us down and we toured the whole plant,” he said.
IMG officials know they will build in neighboring communities, so a personal touch is important, Kiecana said. Part of being nimble means traveling a lot to see the operations in Northeast Pennsylvania and the people who live nearby, he said.
“There was a lot of face-to face, a lot of community meetings explaining what we do,” spokeswoman Kristi Gittins. “It’s easier now that we have one built. You can see it, you can touch it. There’s more of a comfort level.”
The power plants themselves are nimble, too, able to power up in six minutes, which helps them operate in the growing niche of distributed energy.
“They can come on and off very quickly, as well as respond to load change requests” from the grid, Broadwater said.
Energy planners are looking more to smaller, localized sources of electricity as more reliable ways to power a system of mini grids. That opens the door to more solar and wind power, but those sources need baseload supply from gas for when the sun sets and the air is still.
“There continues to be a market for these types of resources,” said Greg Reed, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Energy and a professor of electrical engineering. Plants like those built by IMG complement and support renewables, said Reed, who is involved in several university and utility projects aimed at expanding micro-grid systems.
“The market is growing for sure,” he said.
That market has the potential to grow in Pittsburgh as the city pushes for more distributed energy systems in new developments. For now, IMG is focused on building plants in Northeast Pennsylvania, where access to shale wells and grid connections is easy.
Leaders chose the city’s North Shore for its headquarters, though, to remain close to the engineers, firms and university programs such as Reed’s that are making this an energy hub, Kiecana said.
“It’s just a great pool of talent in Pittsburgh, given the focus on the energy industry and the great students and universities here,” he said. “It’s an exciting place to be.”
David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or email@example.com.