Board of Public Utilities Hopes to Get Into Garbage in a Big Way

State re-launches biomass initiative, wants to turn NJ's tons of trash into renewable energy resource

Each year in New Jersey more than 8 million tons of waste — yard litter, trash from residents, and livestock manure, among other debris — is thrown away in garbage dumps, burned in incinerators, or disposed of elsewhere.

It is a practice that robs New Jersey of a potentially valuable resource, more than half of which could be used to generate electricity or even create a cleaner-burning fuel to power motor vehicles, according to some.

If tapped, those 5.4 million tons of waste could generate more than 1,124 megawatts of electricity — a larger amount than New Jersey’s highly touted solar program now generates, or the equivalent of approximately 311 million gallons of gasoline-equivalent fuel, a study by Rutgers University has suggested.

How to tap that resource and turn it into an asset to produce clean energy is part of a revamped initiative launched by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities this past week. Doing so, however, poses difficult challenges, not the least of which is a lack of funding to make it happen.

In the current fiscal year, the state’s Office of Clean Energy within the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has set aside $2.5 million for the effort, an initiative recommended by the state’s Energy Master Plan. Up to $12 million would be funded over four years, according to the agency’s proposed budget.

The $2.5 million for fiscal year 2014 is more than the state has spent since 2011 when it first started funding biomass projects. To date, 12 projects have been financed with rebates amounting to $6.575 million, according to Charlie Garrison, a consultant to the Office of Clean Energy.

Unlike the past, however, the state will deliver rebates to biomass projects under a competitive solicitation process, said Scott Hunter, renewable energy administrator for the Office of Clean Energy.

In the Rutgers study, the state was urged to target resources to develop public-private partnerships to operate power and fuel plants in two to three years, according to Dave Specca, assistant director of the Rutgers EcoComplex in Bordentown.

“A lot of the projects require a lot of financing,’’ Specca said. Renewable natural gas from biomass, he said, is a fuel with both economic and environmental benefits.

The Rutgers report, which is expected to be updated in October, also recommended that the state consider establishing a renewable energy credit for biomass facilities, similar to the one New Jersey has established to promote the development of new solar installations.

The effort to promote biomass has long been championed by environmental advocates. “If you want a state where you want to harvest the organic wastes it generates, this is the state,’’ Joanna Underwood, president of Energy Vision, a nonprofit group committed to promoting the transition to a more sustainable energy and transportation sector in the country.

New Jersey has adopted an aggressive standard to have 22.5 percent of its electricity be generated from renewable energy sources by 2020. It also has ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a goal that could be advanced by increased use of biomass resources, according to Serpil Guran, director of the Rutgers EcoComplex.

The biggest hurdles to promoting biomass projects involve the large capital expenditures required, as well as a reluctance on the part of funders and investors to pour money into a still unproven field, according to the Rutgers study.

As in recent initiatives proposed by the BPU, the state is looking to develop a program that does not rely on funding from the Office of Clean Energy, whose budget is mostly funded by surcharges on electric and gas bills of utility customers.