Mapping Out Requirements for Tomorrow’s Energy Infrastructure

Fundamental changes to ways electricity and gas will be delivered are in the offing, according to experts at NJ Spotlight roundtable

Steve Corneli, principal, Strategies for Clean Energy Innovation
With the state pursuing more aggressive clean-energy policies, the energy sector will undergo a major transformation that will require fundamental changes in how and when electricity and gas are delivered.

At least that seemed to be the consensus of experts during a NJ Spotlight roundtable event Friday that focused on modernizing the state’s energy infrastructure, an issue fraught with challenges and not insignificant costs.

It also comes at a time of rapid technological changes and the need to upgrade an aging power grid to cope with integrating cleaner, but intermittent, energy sources into the mix, while facing pressure to make the entire system more resilient, the panelists agreed.

Former Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a keynote speaker whose city is now developing a microgrid to deal with future storms after being battered by Hurricane Sandy, stressed the importance of energy resiliency.

“We need to persuade the public that this is an investment that needs to be made,’’ Zimmer said. “Energy resiliency investments will save us in the long run.’’

Her community is one 13 New Jersey municipalities now assessing microgrids, a way of enhancing resiliency and reliability by relying on distributed energy resources, a localized way of providing power.

“We are looking at tremendous changes happening — really a transformation of the industry over the next five, 10, and 15 years,’’ said David Daly, president and chief operating officer for Public Service Electric & Gas, the state’s largest utility.

Driving factors

Those changes are being driven by a number of factors: new energy policies at the federal and state levels; the pace of technology innovations; and basically turning a century-old structure of integrated generation and transmission on its head, Daly said.

“New Jersey is really at a fork in the road when it comes to energy,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director of Rethink Energy and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

“As we see it, we can either continue along the same path and prolong the use of polluting fossil fuels or take a new path, investing in renewable energy that will reduce emissions, clean our air and create good jobs, and spur new industries in New Jersey.’’

The way to achieve the reductions the state needs to attain its climate-change goals is to curb its increasing reliance on natural gas and ramp up its dependence on renewable energy, Gilbert said.

Hard to hit targets

But attaining those targets will involve major new investments in energy efficiency, new technologies to make the power grid smarter, and upgrades to the transmission system, as well as much more cooperation between grid operators and power systems — not just locally, but regionally as well.

Taking a new and expansive view of the transmission system is key, some participants argued.

“We need to change the way we look at transmission,’’ said Steve Corneli, of Strategies for Clean Energy Innovation, adding it is something California is focusing on as a priority. “Generation and transmission have to be thought of on a regional scale.’’

Upgrades will be required to swing power from renewables from one region to another as demand shifts during the day and evening hours, and customers will have to adapt to time-of-use tariffs for electricity, choosing to use their power when prices are the lowest.

That means a grid able to communicate the swing in power demand to generators, transmission operators, and customers.

“The next wave is this — smart appliances, smart homes, and smarter customers,’’ Corneli predicted.

Factoring in transmission needs

Daly agreed, saying sometimes the needs of the transmission system are overlooked even though it is such an important enabler of the future. “Our transmission system is like our county and state roads. It’s not yet like an interstate highway,’’ he said.

All of this will involve additional costs, but in the long run, it could save customers money by delivering cheaper electricity and more efficient power. Corneli said a well-designed transmission system will save people money.

The most contentious part of the discussion revolved around the continuing expansion of the natural-gas infrastructure in New Jersey, with more than a dozen new pipelines in the works or pending approval.

Gilbert argued some of those projects are being built without demonstrating a need, a point disputed by Daly and Andrew Hendry, president and CEO of the New Jersey Utilities Association. Citing disruption in gas supplies in New England, Hendry argued New Jersey does not want to face the same capacity constraints in delivering fuel to customers experienced up north.