Quick, what New Jersey economic sector contributes the most carbon to our atmosphere? If you answered, “the power sector,” you are wrong. The transportation sector -- cars, buses, trucks, and trains -- emits more CO2 than all of the power plants operating in the state. This is not true of all states, but reflects that New Jersey has one of the cleanest power portfolios in the nation.
OK let’s try again: What is the major reason that New Jersey’s energy mix is so much cleaner than that of many other states? Did you guess solar? Wrong again. Yes, New Jersey is a leader in solar energy, with installations large and small -- and even the largest pole-attached solar installation in the world. But even with all the progress we have made, solar generates less than 3 percent of the energy in New Jersey.
So if not solar, what is driving New Jersey’s clean-energy leadership? Nuclear power. Roughly 50 percent of New Jersey’s energy is produced by nuclear power -- without emitting CO2 (or other air pollutants). According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), nuclear energy generates 98.5 percent of New Jersey’s carbon-free energy and is the only source that can produce large amounts of electricity around the clock.
The third time is the charm: How much would it cost to replace all the power we get from nuclear power with solar? OK, it is a trick question. Solar cannot replace nuclear power because solar produces no power at night or on cloudy days. True, there are many researchers working at companies and universities trying to figure out a way to cost-effectively store electricity, but we are nowhere near that point yet.
Even if we could, to generate 31.5 million megawatt hours of electricity from solar (the 2014 generation output of New Jersey’s four nuclear plants), would cost billions, require more than 100 million solar panels, and be spread over more than 177,000 acres of land. That would mean every inch of Bergen County -- border to border -- would be covered with solar panels, with enough left over to cover half of Hudson County as well.
The purpose of this blog is not to disparage solar power. We need to continue to invest and do research in innovative technology. However, I want to drive home the point that nuclear is now -- and must continue to be -- an important component of any carbon-reduction strategy. That holds true for both our state and our nation.
If carbon reduction is our goal, we need to acknowledge the role nuclear plays and promote policies that recognize the large contribution nuclear is already playing in these efforts.
And I would add that the huge effort and investment that we are making to further reduce emissions in the power sector needs to be matched with an effort that I believe will have an even more dramatic impact on lowering CO2 emissions -- the electrification of transportation.