Sustainability Summit Explores the Many Ways to Leave Fossil Fuels Behind

Tara Nurin | September 20, 2013 | Energy & Environment
Group has seen the future of the Garden State, and it could be green -- but things must change

Randall Solomon, codirector of Sustainable Jersey.
New Jersey is failing to take advantage of opportunities to reduce its use of fossil fuels and convert to cleaner, renewable sources of energy, according to a group trying to promote a more sustainable economy in the state.

“We’ve got all the pieces we need. We just need to put all the pieces together,” said Mark Warner, director of energy at Sustainable Jersey and at the Sustainability Institute at The College of New Jersey.

Speaking after a Sustainable Jersey summit on Wednesday, Warner said that the state possesses more than enough renewable resources and opportunities to develop cogeneration facilities to replace fossil fuels, cutting down radically on greenhouse gas emissions and making New Jersey “invulnerable to global market pressures or disruptions.”

His colleague at the group and at work, codirector Randall Solomon, agreed.

“There are a tremendous amount of energy efficiency and renewable energy options out there that we’re not capitalizing on — things we can do right now that we’re not doing,” he said.

A brief prepared by Sustainable Jersey cites a range of available renewables, including solar, waste, biomass, offshore wind, and wave energy, as well as the state’s progressive energy policy. New Jersey’s Global Warming Response Act mandates a reduction in greenhouse gases to 80 percent below 2006 levels by 2050. And two Energy Master Plans signed in 2008 and 2011 establish priorities for affordability, reliability, security, and economic development.

In addition, New Jersey’s deregulation of the electricity market in 1999 helped make consumers more comfortable with the idea of buying power from suppliers other than public utilities, according to Sustainable Jersey. To achieve a more sustainable energy infrastructure, it says, New Jersey customers must in turn get comfortable with alternative energies’ role in the marketplace.

One place to begin, according to the group, is to switch to sustainable fuels to heat buildings and water, which, says Sustainable Jersey, contributes to more than one-third of New Jersey’s energy usage and just slightly less of its carbon footprint. Most homes and businesses are already connected to the infrastructure that delivers natural gas or fuel oil. The needed change, says Sustainable Jersey, is to replace the gas or oil with more sustainable methane or biodiesel.

“The primary opportunity for alternative fuels in New Jersey is not transportation (where electricity is the most appropriate fuel), but heating,” reads the brief.

The Chemistry Council of New Jersey, whose members spend up to 85 percent of their production costs on energy, appreciates that natural gas is relatively clean for a fossil fuel and cheap for a clean energy source and supports the expansion of the state’s pipeline system. But it opposes any move that will increase costs.

With electricity costs for the state’s industrial customers spiking over the national average by 60 percent, according to the council, Director of Communications Elvin Montero said, “The reality is to have a sustainable industry we need a reliable, safe and cheap source of energy to allow for our industries to be competitive. So while we’d support a diverse base of solutions, any that move forward need to be mindful of their ultimate impact on the ratepayer.”

Sustainable Jersey points out that while economies of scale, established technologies, and capital investments already paid help hold down the price of traditional fuels, their inevitable scarcity will ultimately make them more expensive.

But the group also indicates that while alternative technologies may burden ratepayers and shareholders now, economies of scale and maturing technologies will drive down prices, just as has happened with incumbent technologies.

Sustainable Jersey also understands that consumers have a habit of digging in and resisting new technologies, which is why it named electric cars as a top near-term solution that’s relatively easy to adopt and promote.

With practical and relatively affordable electric vehicles coming online, the state’s drivers can drastically lower their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. New Jersey’s dense population and active travel corridors mean that transportation accounts for almost half the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, with most of that created by passenger vehicles. Sustainable Jersey believes that electric cars can form most of the state’s fleet by 2050, although it notes that if all passenger vehicle miles were converted to electricity today, they would place approximately 25 percent more demand on the power grid.

That added demand will put more pressure on power companies and policymakers to operate the grid more effectively, with greater market flexibility and improved reliability and resiliency. It also means that power suppliers will need to rely on renewable sources, which are typically intermittent. To deal with that issue, Sustainable Jersey suggests that municipalities work with utilities toward boosting their omnidirectional capacity, which means they can both draw and supply electricity, depending on whether the consumer is using more or less than it produces with solar panels or other forms of user-generated power.
According to Sustainable Jersey, electricity generation contributes to less than one-fifth of the state’s carbon footprint, which is very low when compared with other states. But the group warns that the current supply vs. demand balance is “fragile and under great strain” because of global fuel-market pressures, aging transmission and distribution systems, and the scheduled retirement of in-state generation plants.

Without substantive and far-sighted transformation that will admittedly take decades and massive amounts of capital, Sustainable Jersey predicts that, “Long term, NJ faces a real risk of electricity scarcity, lower power quality, disruptive outages, social inequities, and increasing costs, in addition to significant impacts from climate change and other pollution resulting from the generation of electricity from fossil fuels.”

The state chapter of the Petroleum Council did not respond to an emailed request for comment.