Can New Jersey Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions if the Nation Backs away from Nuclear?

Tom Johnson | April 22, 2011 | Energy & Environment
Tough choices and tough questions set the tone at Board of Public Utilities anniversary meeting

Will New Jersey be able to meet its ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially if the nation pulls back on developing new nuclear power plants?

That question came up several times yesterday at an event marking the 100th anniversary of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) in the War Memorial in Trenton, as utility executives, energy experts and clean energy advocates discussed the future of energy policies in the state.

In the wake of the disastrous accident in Japan where a nuclear plant suffered a partial meltdown, officials debated what impact it would have on the future of nuclear here. How that plays out will affect other policy goals, including reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global climate change.

Tough Choices

In opening remarks, BPU President Lee Solomon made it clear the state faces some tough choices.

“It’s clear to us we are not going to meet ambitious carbon targets without nuclear,” Solomon said. “If we are going to write off nuclear as out of the equation, then we will have to lower our carbon reduction targets.”

The issue has come to the forefront at a time when the state is overhauling its Energy Master Plan, a task that has been thrown off course by the events in Japan, Solomon noted. It has led analysts to question just how much of a renaissance nuclear power will enjoy, a point driven home by the decision earlier this week by Princeton-based NRG Energy to cancel plans to build two new nuclear units at a facility in Texas.

The energy plan also is being revised in light of the decision of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to adopt new rules that could make it difficult for New Jersey to subsidize three new power plants to lower congestion costs in the state. Hearings on the plan were scheduled to begin next month, but now appear likely to be postponed for the second time this year.

New Jersey has set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, a reduction of 20 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. It also is participating in a regional effort in a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gases. But Gov. Chris Christie, who told a town hall meeting earlier this year he is not convinced global climate change is occurring, also has talked about pulling New Jersey out of the regional effort.

Tough Targets

In a subsequent panel discussion, Solomon asked panelists what direction the state should go in the wake of the nuclear accident and tough targets on greenhouse gas emissions.

David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said the state should go forward with its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even without nuclear. “We’re of the mindset that we can be carbon-free and nuclear-free by 2050,” he said.

Asked by Solomon how the state was going to achieve that goal, Pringle replied it would be a combination of different generation sources, including solar, wind, combined heat and power (CHP) plants (which generate electricity and steam simultaneously), natural gas and energy efficiency.

Others, however, argued that nuclear had to be part of the equation.

“For the next 50 years, this country will have nuclear, coal, natural gas and renewable in varying degrees,” predicted Steve Morgan, CEO of American Clean Energy.

Bill Levis, chief operating officer of PSEG Power LLC, agreed. “If we want large reductions in carbon, nuclear will have to be part of the solution,” he said. “Eventually, we will need more generation facilities, not less.”

Virtually everyone on the panel agreed that the state needs to do more to encourage energy efficiency, a strategy that Solomon said is by far the most cost-effective way for the state to proceed.

“There’s tremendous, tremendous savings here,” said Michael Fishchette, president of Concord Engineering Group, but noted the public needs to be educated more about the benefits of energy efficiency.

But Morgan said the state would have to do more than that to see energy efficiency take off. He argued voluntary energy efficiency has not worked in this country. “If you want to get really serious about energy efficiency, we really have to mandate it,” he said