Can Clean Energy Shut Down Coal-Fired Power Plants?

Sierra Club report suggests increasing reliance on renewables and cutting power consumption can shut down dozens of coal plants

If New Jersey and other northeast states continue aggressive efforts to increase the use of clean energy and reduce energy consumption, then the region has an opportunity to shut down dozens of coal-fired power plants, a new Sierra Club study suggested yesterday.

The report, A Clean Northeast: Moving the Northeast Beyond Coal and Toward a Clean Energy Future, aims to provide a framework for replacing more than three dozen coal plants in the region with less polluting alternatives, primarily by investing in clean energy like wind and solar and aggressively increasing energy efficiency.

The study, however, comes at a time when the Christie administration is expected to soon unveil its overhaul of the New Jersey Energy Master Plan, a policy reassessment that may recommend scaling back ambitious targets for solar power because of the higher costs associated with the technology.

“Northeastern states are spending over a billion dollars importing coal that is making their residents sick,” said Jennifer Perrone, policy analyst for the club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We have the technology to replace all of the energy the Northeast gets from coal with cleaner energy. That will mean healthier kids and a healthier economy.”

A good portion of those coal plants probably will be retired in the next few years because of much tougher air pollution standards being promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to industry experts.

In New Jersey, five coal plants were built before 1970, but only one is expected to shut down, a 25-megawatt facility in Vineland. Others, however, are expected to remain in operation, including two plants operated by PSEG Power in Mercer and Hudson counties, where the Newark company has spent more than $1 billion installing modern pollution controls.

With the state aggressively pursuing solar and wind power, there is an opportunity to replace the coal plants with cleaner power, argued Christine Guhl, the club’s field organizer. “We can replace dirty coal with energy efficiency and renewable resources, while creating local jobs and protecting health, but we need to follow through with our commitment — now is not the time to slide back in the past,” Guhl said.

That view was disputed by Bill Levis, president and chief operating officer of PSEG Power. “Considering it [coal] represents 40 percent of our energy supply, I don’t know how you can walk away from it,” he said.

New Jersey is second, behind only California in the number of solar installations, with the state installing about 25 megawatts of solar projects in the past few months. It has a goal of developing more than 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind power, which also would help displace coal, club officials said.

But that is only going to happen if the state continues to invest in clean energy technologies. Jeff Tittel, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the club, noted the Christie administration diverted more than $400 million in clean energy funds during last year’s budget battle. The administration is diverting more than $50 million in clean energy funds in the budget unveiled last month, Tittel noted.

“New Jersey has one of the most successful clean energy programs in the country,” Tittel said. “We are not only meeting our goals but exceeding them. We are concerned, however, that the Christie administration, through cutting of funding for programs, may be trying to weaken our goals.”

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