Administration to Allocate $25M in Federal Funds to Spur Resiliency

Local governments and services are objects of largesse, but critics dismiss program as drop in bucket

chris christie
The Christie administration yesterday said it is looking to give $25 million in federal funds to 146 municipalities, counties, and government facilities and services so they can upgrade their energy systems and avert outages during extreme weather.

The funds, allocated from the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, are targeting police and fire stations, emergency operations centers, wastewater treatment plants, and other critical resources.

But skeptics question just what benefits will be achieved by the program, saying it is a mere drop in the bucket of the money needed to address resiliency issues facing local government units.

During the superstorm last October, many of critical facilities lost power for more than a week at a time, some with disastrous consequences. Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission’s treatment plant was completely flooded by the storm, an event that led to the discharge of hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the state’s waterways.

In addition, of the state’s 369 wastewater treatment plants, nearly one-quarter were damaged during and after the storm, incurring $2.6 billion in expenses, according to state environmental officials.

Given the extraordinary needs and costs of upgrading the grid — projected to run as much as $8.7 billion, according to one report — some questioned just how much of an impact the allocation of $25 million will have.

“It’s hard to see how that money spread out among that many communities is going to make that much of a difference,’’ said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst at Glenrock Associates. “It’s not that it won’t be useful, but look at the scale of the infrastructure needs in the state.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “This is better than no money,’’ he said, but added, “It’s too little, too late. It’s of sort of like replenishing our beaches with a child’s plastic pail and shovel.’’

But Michael Cerra, director of government affairs of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, disagreed.

“At least it’s a step in the right direction,’’ Cerra said of the grant program. “Of course, it is a question of priorities and where do you start it first.’’

According to a press release issued by the governor’s office, the grant allocations, which range up to $734,880, can be used to support a variety of alternative energy solutions, including microgrids (small generating units to keep the lights on at on-site manufacturers and other facilities); solar power with battery backup; and natural gas-powered emergency generators — technologies that will allow critical services to operate even if the power grid fails.

“Reliable energy is vitally important during emergencies, and making the state’s critical assets more resilient in the face of extreme weather events and other hazards is a central recovery goal,’’ said Gov. Chris Christie in the press release.

Neither the governor’s press office nor that of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities responded to questions from NJ Spotlight asking about more details about how the program would work.

The governor’s press release said municipalities and other governmental entities
will be asked to supply detailed information on energy usage, the impact of Sandy’s electrical outages on operations, and other information.

In addition to the federal grants, the BPU is pursuing an effort to encourage the building of more combined-heat power (CHP) plants at hospitals and other essential facilities in an effort to keep the lights on during widespread outages. But it has yet to figure out a financing mechanism to achieve that goal.

Combined heat power plants are widely viewed as an efficient way of producing power, especially at hospitals, prisons, and wastewater treatment plants, with the ability to stay up and running if the grid blacks out nearby communities during storms. To do so, however, developers of the facilities argue they need financial incentives from the state to move their projects forward.

Building resiliency into those facilities has been a top priority for the administration ever since Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey nearly a year ago. Among other things, it is focusing on how to promote enhanced distributed generation — local power units that can provide electricity even if there is widespread failure in the regional power grid.

The administration also is looking into ways to provide loans to wastewater treatment facilities to build combined heat and power plants by using a state-run program that finances improvements through a revolving state loan fund.