Employees embrace startup challenges

Lordstown plant began operation this week

LORDSTOWN — The village’s first natural gas-fired power plant is up and running, and at its complex nerve center are power plant veterans who are embracing the challenge of a startup.

Lordstown Energy Center, the 940-megawatt, $900 million gas-fueled electricity generation plant began commercial operation this week.

At the helm is plant manager Drew Schneider, who received nuclear power training on a U.S. Navy submarine for 20 years and has worked at three natural gas-fired power plants before coming to Lordstown.

Schneider, who served as maintenance manager at plants in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, said he is proudest of his safety record in those roles.

“In 17 years in the business, I’ve only had one person with a burn,” said Schneider.

In fact, when two employees transferred away from Kleen Energy Systems in Middletown, Conn., where Schneider served as maintenance manager, the employees returned, citing the safety culture Schneider had created.

Schneider and his wife Lisa moved to Lake Milton in August, though Schneider chuckles when asked about the area.

“I’ve spent most of my time here (at the plant),” said Schneider. “I bought a house 100 yards from the shoreline, but I’ve only gotten out a little bit. The people seem nice.”

Despite his busy schedule, Schneider is beginning to make the rounds in the community, including greeting Lordstown Elementary School students on their first day of classes last month. The plant is planning more engagements heading into November.

Although the plant employs only 21 people, operations director Robert Haley said the impact of the plant on the area is much bigger than the number of employees. Between 800 and 900 local laborers were brought in to build the facility, Haley said, and purchasing water from both Warren and Niles will generate revenue for those cities.

Haley also explained that the power plant brings its own infrastructure, rather than relying on the village of Lordstown to provide support.

“We’re paying to have the gas line and our water,” said Haley. “We don’t need our own roads. A lot of people miss that and don’t understand that we’re bringing our own infrastructure.”

Schneider said the 21-employee count is actually artificially low.

“We have people from the area who come in and clean. We buy our uniforms from local businesses,” said Schneider.

Of the 21 employees at the plant, 17 or 18 are from the region, Schneider said. Most of them have come from other power plants.

Cody Cooper, a lead operator from Poland, took a very direct route to the power industry. He graduated from a two-year power plant technology program at Youngstown State University, which is offered in partnership with First Energy Corp. Cooper said he is enjoying his role in the startup process.

Cooper said his job entails “working out the kinks” for the new plant. He monitors alarms throughout the facility and decides whether corrective maintenance is required.

“It’s intense and we’re extremely busy,” Cooper said. “It’s challenging, but a lot of fun.”

The plant is able to provide power to 850,000 homes and businesses. Most of that electricity will remain in the Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia tri-state area.