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New Jersey's Reliance on Natural Gas to Grow, Experts Agree

Panelists explore future of natural gas in Garden State at NJ Spotlight Roundtable.

Like it or not, natural gas will probably play a bigger role in New Jersey's energy future.

That was the consensus of a panel of experts who convened Friday at Rider University for a NJ Spotlight Roundtable on natural gas to debate the pros and cons of promoting greater reliance on the fossil fuel -- a stance embraced by the recently adopted Energy Master Plan.

From expanding the state's network of interstate gas pipelines, to encouraging fleet owners to switch their vehicles from diesel to compressed natural gas, to generating electricity more efficiently and with less pollution, the plan envisions gas replacing more carbon-polluting alternatives.

With natural prices now hovering around $3 per dekatherm and not likely to rise above $6 in the near future, the state has no choice but to promote greater use of natural gas, according to most of the panelists speaking at the lunchtime event.

"The reality is that it's a game changer for this country," said Ed Graham, president and chief executive officer of South Jersey Industries, owner of South Jersey Gas, one of four regulated gas utilities in New Jersey. With the discovery of huge deposits of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale regions of Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere, it is likely the nation has enough natural gas to handle demand for about 100 years, Graham said.

But Dena Mottola Jabroska, executive director of Environment New Jersey, argued that the hydraulic fracturing process, dubbing "fracking" by critics, used to extract natural gas poses a huge threat to the drinking water of millions of people. If the state relies on natural gas for the myriad of uses suggested in the state's energy plan, New Jersey will never attain its goals of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming, Jabroska said.

"It's a very bad idea to hook our future on natural gas," she said, criticizing a plan by the Christie administration to subsidize the development of three natural-gas fired power plants. The move would divert needed resources to promote cleaner fuels, such as solar and wind power, as well as money that could be spent on energy efficiency, which she said should be the state's top priority.

But Division of Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand disputed that view, noting that by the end of the decade ratepayers will have paid out more than $5 billion in subsidies to promote solar energy, and may very well duplicate that expenditure if the state moves forward with developing offshore wind farms along the coast of New Jersey.

With tough new air pollution rules likely to lead to the closing of many coal-fired power plants, which supply the bulk of the electricity in the country, natural gas will have to be a bridge fuel to a greater reliance on other cleaner source of electricity, most of the panelists said.

"There's no way we keep the lights on without a lot of natural gas," said Steven Gabel, president of Gabel Associates, an energy and environmental consulting firm based in Highland Park. He added that 25,000 megawatts of coal-fired plants are likely to be retired because of new rules being promulgated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. "The arithmetic is unassailable," he said.

Brand agreed, saying that the alternative is to build more transmission lines, a suggestion that has triggered enormous opposition in New Jersey, particularly the Susquehanna-Roseland project which cuts through several national recreational areas. "The price is something we should be grateful for," said Brand, referring to the low price of the gas.

As for using natural gas to fuel fleets of commercial vehicles and as a fuel to generate electricity at combined heat and power plants (which generate electricity and heat simultaneously), most of the panel suggested some state incentives are likely needed if New Jersey is going to achieve those goals. The Energy Master Plan calls for the development of 1,500 megawatts of CHP.

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