State On Target for Meeting Goals of Energy Master Plan, According to BPU

Tom Johnson | July 27, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Agency identifies emerging issues -- like lengthy power outages in wake of severe storms -- that need to be addressed

Public Service Electric & Gas is building a 10.14-megawatt solar farm at a former landfill in Bordentown.
New Jersey is making good progress toward achieving the goals its four-year-old Energy Master Plan—lowering costs to consumers, promoting a diverse set of in-state generation, and supporting renewable energy.

At least that is the opinion of the state Board of Public Utilities as it gears up for a series of public hearings next month on the plan and how it should be updated, an assessment some will likely contest.

In a notice filed on its website Friday, the BPU identified several emerging issues that need to be addressed — largely driven by the widespread and lengthy power outages customers experienced during a series of extreme storms in the past few years, including Hurricane Sandy.

In what promises to be a new section of the plan, the state hopes to focus more attention on protecting critical energy infrastructure; improving electric utilities emergency preparedness and response; increasing distributed generation resources to produce power locally; and developing a long-term financing mechanism to fund resiliency projects.

The BPU identified those issues as high priority. The state already has set up an Energy Resiliency Bank, which is expected to begin its initial round of funding in September, helping to make energy infrastructure more resistant to the power outages that have extended for up to two weeks in recent years.

According to the agency, a top priority of the 2011 Energy Master Plan was reducing high energy costs in the state, a goal it has achieved to some degree.

“The state has fallen from a high energy-cost state — somewhere in the range of 10 most expensive in the nation — to a range that falls within the national average for total energy costs (electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, and gasoline),’’ the BPU claimed.

It attributed that drop to the development of a “vibrant and robust’’ natural-gas infrastructure in the state, which has allowed New Jersey to take advantage of low prices for the fuel. That, in turn, has driven down heating costs for customers who rely on gas and helped reduce electricity prices for gas-fueled power plants.

[related]The cheaper natural gas comes from Pennsylvania and neighboring states; a new technology known as fracking is used to extract the fuel from shale formations. That has led to a spate of gas pipelines that have been either approved or proposed in New Jersey, much to the dismay of environmentalists and nearby property owners.

“The Christie administration has fast-tracked natural gas plants and gas pipelines,’’ said Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey. “It is still stalled on offshore wind and way behind on energy efficiency.’’

The current plan calls for the state to develop more than 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind farms by 2020. Not a single project has been approved yet by the BPU, and given the logistics and hurdles associated with building wind turbines in the ocean, none is likely to be operational by that date. There is no offshore wind farm operating in the U.S.

Nevertheless, the BPU said the state is meeting its goal of increasing use of renewable energy to generate electricity, with nearly 15 percent of the electricity supplied in New Jersey coming from such sources, with solar accounting for almost 3 percent of that.

Clean energy advocates questioned that assertion.

“We’re not at 15 percent,’’ argued Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “There’s no way.’’

Energy analysts suggested that the 15 percent figure as inflated by the approximately 9 percent of renewable energy New Jersey imports from out-of-state sources, such as solar and onshore wind.

By 2020, the state’s so-recalled renewable energy portfolio calls for 22.5 percent of electricity to come from cleaner energy sources.

While saying there has been much progress in implementing the Energy Master Plan, the BPU acknowledged there is always room for improvement.

As an example, the agency noted that generation by combined heat and power plants, locally based units that deliver both electricity and heat to facilities, is off target. The plan calls for 1,500 megawatts of CHP by 2020. Potential BPU and Economic Development Authority programs will improve this trend, according to the agency.

Tittel criticized the agency’s conclusions. “When you read it, everything seems fine, when it’s not,’’ he said.