Forum Message: Cleaner Power Helps Fight Global Warming

Town hall takes stock of strengths, weaknesses of state's clean energy efforts, impact of climate change

With more frequent extreme weather likely in the future, the state needs to step up efforts to promote cleaner ways of producing electricity, according to clean energy advocates and a prominent legislator.

“New Jersey has been battered by an unprecedented number of storms,’’ said Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset), speaking at a forum yesterday afternoon in Piscataway, Moving Forward on Climate. “We need to take action against climate change.’’

The event, the first of three town hall meetings devoted to global warming and its impact on New Jersey, focused on issues now more prominently being discussed in the wake of the devastation Hurricane Sandy wreaked on much of the state, particularly the Jersey Shore.

But the debate occurs at a time of much uncertainty over the state’s clean energy efforts, one underscored last week by a study released by a major trade organization in the sector.

The study from the Solar Energy Industries Association reported that New Jersey had passed a major milestone, with 1 gigawatt of electricity produced by solar systems in the state, enough to power 139,000 homes. The same study, however, noted that the state has slipped behind California and Arizona in the number of solar installations.

New Jersey installed more than 400 megawatts of new solar systems in 2012, but that pace has slowed dramatically in recent months, a result of the state’s aggressive policies promoting the power source. So many solar systems have been installed here that prices for the electricity that the arrays produce for their owners has plummeted. That has dried up investment in new solar projects.

Adding to the uncertainty is the recurring diversion of ratepayers’ funds — designed to go to clean energy projects — by the Legislature and Christie administration to help balance state budgets in the past few years. With another $152 million in ratepayers’ money proposed to be diverted in next year’s fiscal budget, Chivukula, the sponsor of major clean energy legislation, said more than $800 million will have been used to plug holes in the state budget.

There’s good news, however.

The price of solar is coming down all the time, according to Dante DiPirro, president of Mr. Sustainable, LLC, a firm devoted to pushing green technologies. Solar already is cheaper than nuclear power and is close to achieving parity with more conventional ways of producing electricity, such as coal, DiPirro said.

The state is also promoting the development of 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, a goal that has elicited interest from at least 11 offshore wind developers, according to Kris Ohleth, director of permitting for the Atlantic Wind Connection. That project, funded in part by Google, is hoping to build an offshore transmission system from Virginia to New Jersey to bring electricity from offshore wind farms to the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard.

Ohleth said that offshore wind has been developed in Europe for decades, but so far no project has reached fruition in the U.S.

“The most powerful wind resources are located just offshore,’’ Ohleth said. “Offshore wind matches exactly where the population is,’’ she said. “Why is there no offshore wind?’’ she asked, arguing that the country has not embraced the reality of climate change as other nations around the world have done.

Harriet Shugaman, executive director of ClimateMama and the moderator of the program, made the same point. Nowhere else is the reality of global climate change even being debated, she said.

Some audience members questioned whether whatever the state does will not matter, unless a national policy to combat climate change is enacted.

The New Jersey Sierra Club, ClimateMama,, NJ Mother’s for Sustainable Energy, the Lawrence Brook Watershed Partnership, NJ Sustainable Collegiate Partners, and the Food and Water Watch all helped host the event.