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Op-Ed: Energy Security Comes Home to Jersey

Keeping the lights on is critical -- especially during a crisis like Superstorm Sandy.

The premise of a new hit network television show (“Revolution”) is a world without electrical power. Suddenly, for reasons that have not yet been fully explained in the show, we are a planet without electricity. It is not a pretty picture. Chaos ensues. Anarchy, looting, pillage, and fear are the new world disorder.

While not as dramatic, for many areas of New Jersey and other parts of the Eastern Seaboard, the post-Superstorm Sandy world they were left in was just as frightening.

Sandy left millions of households and businesses in the Northeast without power for a sustained period of time. Thousands of New Jersey barrier island homes remain without power to this day. During the height of the crisis, thousands were huddled in darkness with no ability to store perishable food; effectively light their way; send and receive vital and up-to-the-minute information; or keep themselves warm and clean.

The storm and its aftermath were a startling reminder that things have not really changed all that much since the 1930's when a Tennessee farmer promoting rural electrification for the government said, “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house."

We are addicted to the juice. We need it and cannot live without it. So it is time we had an honest and brutal conversation about how to secure it and keep the lights on -- particularly when we need them most: during times of crisis.

For more than a decade, I have been providing energy planning and security advice to the United States Department of Defense, including the Joint Base in Burlington and Ocean Counties. Keeping runways lit, fences secure, radar working, and scores of other activities powered by electricity that keep our military bases functioning is a preoccupation that keeps Pentagon brass up late at night pondering. They hire me and my firm -- MCFA Energy and Infrastructure from right here in Haddonfield, New Jersey -- so they do not have to worry about it as much.

We now know, however, that energy security is something that all of us should be concerned about. Long lines at the few stations in North Jersey and in New York still able to pump gasoline and diesel fuel and harrowing middle-of-the-night evacuations of prenatal intensive-care-unit babies in New York City have taught us that our energy infrastructure is vulnerable and that our backup plans often fail.

Assessing New Jersey’s energy security needs will not be a quick or easy task, but it is a necessary one. We can do all we can to make sure that utility companies get the power back on after it goes down, but protecting and rebuilding our energy infrastructure to make sure it does not go down in the first place will be a long and expensive proposition.

That proposition is compounded in New Jersey, where we rank fifth in the nation in the number of major energy infrastructures that are within five feet of sea level. In neighboring New York during Sandy, a Con Ed substation exploded, leaving the lower part of Manhattan without power. Add on top of that, the fact is that the East Coast’s energy infrastructure is among the oldest in the nation.

All the energy news was not bad, however, and any honest assessment needs to recognize that. It turns out that our nuclear power plants which were built to be “hurricane proof” actually are. Fully one-third (34) of America’s nuclear power plants were in Sandy’s path. There were zero meltdowns and no disasters. And while there were concerns about the nation’s oldest plant -- Oyster Creek -- operation of plant equipment was never affected, and the huge backup generators designed to start automatically did and continued to power the cooling pumps. Cooling systems also continued to function at all three other nuclear reactors that experienced shutdowns --Indian Point and Nine Mile Point in New York, and Salem here in New Jersey.

Still there are a lot of questions which need to be answered. Should we bury our transmission lines? How much will it cost? Those are both questions New Jersey should consider while conducting an energy security assessment. Consider this: 20 years ago, in 1991, East Hampton on Long Island following Hurricane Bob and the 20th century’s “Perfect Storm,” asked its utility to bury its electric lines running along an eight-mile stretch between Amagansett and Montauk at the eastern tip of the South Fork of Long Island. The Long Island Lighting Company agreed to the request. During and after Sandy, Montauk stayed lit. On the other hand Con Ed operates the world’s largest underground electric distribution system and lost service to nearly a million of its customers in NYC and Westchester County, so clearly burying the systems is no fail-safe.

These are just a few examples and only a handful of the questions we need to ask. But Sandy has given us the opportunity to learn from her. Now is the time to ask the questions, make an assessment, figure out what it will cost to make us more secure, and decide what we can afford.

Michael Fuhrman is cofounder and principal of MCFA Energy and Infrastructure in Haddonfield, which specializes in planning, developing, implementing, and managing energy and infrastructure programs.

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