Matching Innovative Technologies to NJ’s Clean Energy Needs

Tom Johnson | November 8, 2011 | Energy & Environment
Working group advises state to focus on smaller-scale systems that can be quickly commercialized.

The most cost-effective way to promote clean energy technologies in New Jersey is to encourage smaller-scale, localized, renewable energy and energy efficiency systems that are likely to be commercialized quickly, a special advisory panel has recommended to state officials.

In the latest report of a working group appointed by the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU), a panel exploring innovative technologies that could help New Jersey curb energy use and produce cleaner electricity suggested that small-scale systems that could be quickly implemented with the correct support and incentives from the state could create the most jobs, new businesses, and economic activity.

The goal of creating green jobs and reducing energy use in a state with steep electric bills is in line with the overarching theme of a revamped draft Energy Master Plan (EMP) released by the Christie administration this past June. Some of its recommendations, however, have been criticized by clean energy advocates, particularly for its lukewarm backing of solar and support for expanding the use of natural gas.

In its report, the 14-member working group cited solar as one of the top 10 highly rated technologies the state should pursue, behind tidal power and small hydropower systems. The report, however, recommended that whatever technologies the state promotes, it must focus on testing and verification by independent parties to assure reliability and promised performance.

The report also suggested that the state ramp up efforts to reduce energy usage by encouraging the development of energy-monitoring systems, advanced metering, and advanced energy systems and controls for buildings.

While identifying technologies that offer promise, the working group also indicated that they pose challenges state policymakers must overcome. For instance, the panel suggested that smart meters that give homeowners and businesses a clearer picture of how much energy they use and what it costs should be looked at together with a smart grid system that moves power over distribution and transmission lines. Both have the potential to reduce energy losses and improve New Jersey’s energy efficiency, but deciding how to pay for those technologies could hurt near-term viability of the technologies.

Tidal power, generating electricity by the lateral movement of tidal currents, offers an opportunity to develop new generating capacity in the state. Its near-term viability is high, but there are a limited number of suitable sites in New Jersey for the technology, according to the report.

Fuel cells have been in use for several years, but reliability and maintenance issues have hurt their near-term commercialization, the report said. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy from a fuel, commonly hydrogen, into electricity through a chemical reaction.

The working group also cited the importance of developing storage technologies, which can retain electricity generated from renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, to be used when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. Energy storage may be viable in the near-term for small-scale applications (such as plug-in hybrids that feed electricity back into the grid, or fuel cells for both storage and backup power), according to the report. Large-scale storage approaches, however, either need more technology development or have site location and permitting problems,

In conclusion, the consensus of the working group was that getting energy technologies that are cost-effective; protect the environment; and can be marketed, commercialized, and put into operation should be the ones given the highest priority in the state energy plan. Not all of the technologies will achieve commercial success, the report warned, but added that New Jersey needs a diverse portfolio of technologies available for use, rather “than placing all of the state’s eggs in one basket.”

To date, solar energy has been by far the most prominent renewable technology promoted by the state. With generous subsidies from ratepayers, New Jersey has managed to install more than 11,000 solar systems in the past decade, second only to California. The state also is aggressively pursuing offshore wind development, but that effort will take several years to be realized under the current plan.