Opinion: Add Some Real Muscle to ‘Stronger than the Storm’ Catchphrase

R. William Potter | October 18, 2013 | Opinion, Sandy
A new grassroots coalition offers actionable ways to help forestall global climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter
If “Stronger than the Storm” — Gov. Chris Christie’s catchphrase for post-Sandy rebuilding — is going to mean anything, it has to address global climate change, which threatens the Jersey Shore with more frequent and severe superstorms.

But so far the normally outspoken governor has not spoken out on global warming and what New Jersey should do about it.

Despite the lack of Statehouse leadership, however, New Jersey could be poised to lead the nation in promoting renewable energy — a key component for combating global warming.

Scientific reports appear seemingly weekly with new or confirmed evidence that the world is heating up faster than expected, due largely to the burning of fossil fuels. Last week, a report warned that many a sun-drenched city like Phoenix or Dallas will be uninhabitable in a few decades.

The need for swift and sustained action could not any more urgent.

By now it should be clear to all but a shrinking, if highly influential, band of “climate deniers” — led by the billionaire Koch brothers — that global warming is more than a distant threat. It’s reality. And with 127 miles of low-lying coastline, New Jersey is a disaster waiting to happen — again and again.

That was the dire message conveyed by numerous experts testifying before the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee last Thursday.

It’s not a message the Christie administration seems able to hear: It failed to send anyone to testify at the hearing to review the State’s efforts to “sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent future storm damage,” according to a story in NJ Spotlight.

Without a plan to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions that are the main cause of global warming — and an accompanying sense of urgency — Stronger than the Storm is as empty as a church without a clapper.

As it turns out, just such a plan is coming — not from the administration or legislators but from a grassroots coalition of environmental groups, solar energy firms, religious leaders, and good government NGOs.

The new coalition is called NJFREE, which stands for New Jersey for Renewable Energy and Efficiency. Its goal: Promoting a Carbon-Free Future with 80 Percent Renewable Electricity by 2050.

NJFREE is the brainchild of Lyle Rawlings, one of New Jersey’s visionary solar pioneers. He is the CEO of Advanced Solar Products, a solar systems developer, and vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association (MSEIA), a solar think-tank and lobbying group.

(Full disclosure: the author and his law firm have represented MSEIA and many of its members in various legal proceedings. He also is an informal advisor to NJFREE and an occasional bike-riding partner with Rawlings.)

Rawlings has devised a plan to substitute renewable energy — mainly solar and wind — for 30 percent of New Jersey’s electricity by 2025, just 12 years away. His plan also calls for reducing power consumption by 30 percent on the same timetable through targeted investments in energy savings.

Can it be done? And if so what happens to the economy in a seeming rush to renewables?

Rawlings lucidly answers both questions in a whitepaper, titled “The Case for Renewable Energy Transition in New Jersey.” The Independence Day report — appropriately dated July 4 of this year — relies heavily on examples from a handful of European nations that are well on their way toward achieving, even exceeding, his ambitious goals.

Rawlings writes that “Denmark’s renewables goal is 80 percent of overall energy by 2050,” not just electric power. Meanwhile, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland surpassed 63 percent renewable electricity last year.

Why can’t a “Jersey Strong” campaign worthy its broad-shouldered name do it too?

Rawlings also notes that “Germany has a requirement of 80 percent renewable electricity by 2050 and 30 percent by 2025,” and is well ahead of schedule, achieving 26 percent in 2012. And he emphasizes that New Jersey is more favorable for solar and wind than Germany. The Garden State gets 38 percent more “solar radiation” (sunlight) and has 60 percent more energy blowing in the wind than Germany.

To repeat: If northern European countries where the sun shines and the wind blows far less than in New Jersey can replace fossil fuels with zero-emissions renewables, why can’t Jersey Strong do the same, leading a national transformation in how we produce energy?

Short answer: we can and we must.

In fact, this state is already moving faster than almost anyone predicted only a few years ago toward a renewable future.

What is sorely needed, though, is for our leaders — notably the plainspoken denizen of the inner office of the Statehouse — to embrace these ambitious goals and enact an actionable plan for achieving them.

A decade ago, Rawlings and I testified at a hearing on energy policies held by the state Board of Public Utilities, the agency controlling the future of renewables. He advocated what we called “the solar challenge,” a drive to develop enough solar electric to replace power generated by the nation’s oldest and most safety-challenged nuclear reactor, the 600 megawatt Oyster Creek unit.

It would be an understatement to say the BPU commissioners were unpersuaded by our fervent testimony. I recall them rolling their eyes while we extolled the virtues and possibilities of a solar future.

It turns out that Rawlings grossly underestimated New Jersey’s solar potential. Less than a decade after our command performance, there are some 20,000 solar installations up and running across the state — covering rooftops and parking lots and appended to hundreds of PSEG utility poles.

The total capacity of these systems zoomed from zero to more than 1,000 MW in a decade. That’s nearly twice the capacity of Oyster Creek, which is due to retire in six years.

But what of the economic impact of a plan to substitute solar electricity and energy efficiency for traditional power plants that we need to keep the lights on and the AC humming?

Again, we need to turn to Europe for answers. Rawlings points out in his Independence Day report that “according to the country’s top economic research institutions, Germany’s ‘Renewable Energy Transformation’ has been a net benefit to the economy, creating 370,000 new jobs. Indeed Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, remains by far the strongest economy in Europe.”

Besides creating jobs — sorely needed in a state burdened with 9 percent unemployment — a rapid shift to renewables may be the best way to avoid blackouts and brownouts within a few years.

That’s because, as Rawlings writes, new EPA regulations on air pollution will put 20 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants located in the Mid-Atlantic states “at high risk of early retirement, an amount equal to more than two times the electricity load for the entire State of New Jersey.” (One gigawatt is the approximate output of the Hope Creek nuclear plant in Salem County.)

Granted, rapidly installing solar collectors on thousands of rooftops is not a complete solution to the looming climate crisis. Rawlings acknowledges that some 40 percent of all greenhouse gases are emitted by the cars, buses, and trucks that clog many New Jersey roadways. But it makes sense to focus on the other 60 percent, much of it coming from a pollution source the state can moderate through artful regulations and incentives.

In other words, NJFREE may have only part of the answer, but it’s a big part.

Now comes the hard part: persuading policymakers that they can do more than rebuild coastal boardwalks, businesses, and protective dunes. They can keep residents safe by taking decisive steps to help prevent extreme storms altogether, setting a national example by enacting NJFREE’s agenda. It’s time to give substance to “Stronger than the Storm.”