Sharp Divisions over Nuclear, Natural Gas in State’s New Energy Plan

At a hearing on updating New Jersey’s energy master plan, significant differences are raised over what the energy mix could — or should — be

Salem nuclear power plant
If New Jersey is going to achieve a 100 percent clean-energy future, it must stop investing in fossil-fuel infrastructure projects, according to environmentalists and other advocates.

At the opening hearing on drafting a new state energy master plan, strategies for reducing emissions that contribute to climate change figured prominently in how the state can reach the 100 percent clean-energy goal by 2050.

But how the Murphy administration defines clean energy is likely to influence the energy mix for New Jersey over the next three decades. It is critical to the future of nuclear and natural gas, the two most prominent ways consumers and businesses get their electricity today.

The hearing, held Friday at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, was the first of five scheduled by the Board of Public Utilities in developing a new energy master plan, a process it hopes to complete by next June.

The transition to a clean-energy future was strongly backed by many who spoke at the hearing, but there were sharp differences over what roles nuclear and natural gas should play in that transition. Neither should be included in the definition of clean energy, they argued.

Calling for a moratorium

David Pringle, Clean Water Action
“We can’t allow any new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure,’’ said David Pringle of Clean Water Action, calling for a moratorium on new fossil-fuel gas plants, pipelines and compressor stations, a recommendation endorsed by others.

Even the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel said the state ought to be cautious about where it makes future investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure. “We don’t want to have customers pay twice for what we are phasing out,’’ said Sarah Steindel, an attorney with the division.

In the short term, it seems nuclear and natural gas are to play important roles in the transition to a renewable-energy future.

In 2017, nuclear and natural gas accounted for more than 90 percent of the state’s electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration. Renewable energy accounts for about 5 percent.

Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that could put ratepayers on the hook to provide up to $300 million a year over the next decade to prop up nuclear power. Under that law, 40 percent of the state’s electricity would come from nuclear.

Natural gas: use is up, prices are down

Natural-gas use is increasing, too, with multiple new pipelines seeking to be built in New Jersey, which has 75 percent of homes heated by the fuel. In addition, approvals are being sought for three new natural-gas plants to be built in New Jersey — one in the Highlands, one in Hudson County (to provide electricity to New York), and one in Cape May.

Natural-gas prices are expected to stay low, which will help the state transition to a low-carbon future, according to Steve Westhoven, chief operating officer of New Jersey Resources, the owner of New Jersey Natural Gas.

But Barb Blumenthal, research director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, argued that the state’s clean-energy future can be lower-cost than a future that relies on natural gas.

Barb Blumenthal, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
“New Jersey needs to be ready to encourage and support the most efficient, lowest-cost clean energy portfolios rather than becoming the location of choice for gas plants intended to meet the load balancing needs of the entire mid-Atlantic region,’’ she said.

Blumenthal and others urged the state to focus on ways to electrify the transportation sector — the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

“We need the Murphy administration to put the pedal to the electric vehicle accelerator so we start to truly electrify our transportation section,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

Others argued the state needs to make sure solar continues to grow in New Jersey and the benefits of that renewable energy and energy efficiency ought to be extended to low- and moderate-income communities, which have been largely left out of the solar boom to date.