Explainer: How New Jersey Generates Enough Power to Keep the Lights on

Right now, it's mostly nuclear and natural-gas production, but renewables are expected to play a greater role in the future

natural gas power plant
The question of how power is delivered to consumers is becoming an increasingly divisive issue not only in the state, but also across the nation. Tougher environmental regulations will lead to the closure of many older power plants, particularly coal-fired units. There also is a push to ramp up how much electricity in New Jersey comes from renewable energy, which only supplies a fraction of it now. By 2020, at least 20 percent of the state’s electricity is supposed to be generated from renewable sources, but that is unlikely because of delays in promoting offshore wind farms along the Jersey coast.

What’s happening now: The bulk of electricity in New Jersey is produced by nuclear power plants (47 percent) and natural-gas-fired units (47 percent), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal production has fallen to about 3 percent, according to the agency. That reflects the steep drop in natural-gas prices driven by more accessible and cheaper fuel resulting from drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. Renewable energy and to a very small part, petroleum, the latter mostly used during times of peak demand, also supply power.

Why things might change: The energy sector is undergoing a major transformation. Solar power is a good example. It accounts for most of the new generation installed in the nation in recent months. There also is a growing trend to build distributed generation units, which provide electricity locally rather than through the traditional power grid. The state’s Energy Master Plan calls for the development of 1,500 megawatts of more-efficient power plants that produce electricity and heat simultaneously, but again, that effort is not living up to expectations.

What else is happening: There is widespread support to promote energy efficiency; a strategy that will reduce energy costs for both consumers and businesses. If pursued, however, it could lead to lower profits from both power plants and electric utilities. But with most people endorsing the concept of global climate change, there will be a continued push to reduce emissions from power plants — and the cheapest way of doing so is to reduce energy consumption.

What New Jersey is doing: The Christie administration is pushing to develop more natural-gas power plants — with mixed results. It also vows not to allow any more coal-fired units to be built here. One-third of the electricity provided to businesses and residents come from out-of-state plants. Most produce power cheaper than units in New Jersey for a variety of reasons, including tougher environmental regulations and congestion on the electric grid here, which tends to spike prices.

*Is more nuclear an option:” Not likely. While nuclear offers the ability to provide electricity without the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil-fuel facilities, the cost of building a new facility is prohibitive. Instead, many companies that run nuclear power plants often opt to upgrade the facilities to produce more electricity during routine refueling shutdowns.

What lies ahead: In New Jersey, there is a push to sharply ramp up the amount of electricity that comes from renewable energy. A bill pending in the Legislature calls for 80 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2050, although its prospects for passage remain remote at best. There also is a continuing fight over whether to convert a former coal unit in South Jersey to run on natural gas. In the meantime, as many as three other natural-gas plants will come on line to provide electricity to consumers and businesses in the near future.

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