Modernizing the Grid in NJ Vital to Achieving Clean-Energy Targets

Tom Johnson | September 25, 2018 | Energy & Environment
State urged to move away from traditional transmission and distribution lines, concentrate instead on ‘non-wire’ new technologies

transmission towers
The state yesterday began soliciting input on how to modernize an aging electric and gas grid, a step some view as perhaps the most important barrier to achieving a clean-energy future.

New Jersey may have a long way to go, especially when it comes to integrating renewable energy and other more localized energy resources into the grid, according to those who spoke at a hearing on a new energy master plan.

With the Murphy administration setting a target of 100 percent clean energy by 2050, the state must accelerate development of a range of new technologies to make that happen, several speakers argued.

The task is complicated by rising pressure to make the grid more resilient to more frequent and more potent storms, an issue driving utilities to seek approval for big investments in strengthening the electric and gas systems.

But some argued that should not necessarily result in building traditional transmission and distribution lines to bolster reliability.

Avoid more expensive versions of existing system

“A modernized grid should not be focused on more expensive versions of what we’ve been working with for more than a hundred years,’’ said Nicole Sitaraman, a senior manager at SunRun, a prominent residential solar developer. “Decentralization is a critical component.’’

Sitaraman and others suggested priority should be given to non-wire alternatives to enhancing the grid and the transition to cleaner energy. A recent report by a solar trade association found such an approach could hold down rising costs faced by utility customers, she noted.

For New Jersey to achieve its renewable-energy goals, the state should promote new technologies to modernize the grid, including energy storage systems and advanced metering infrastructure, advocates said.

The Murphy administration wants to develop by 2021 600 megawatts of energy storage, a technology deemed critical to making solar- and offshore-wind energy viable because of their intermittent nature.

In 2017, the state had only 1 megawatt of energy storage developed, according to Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. The state ranks 20th in energy storage across the nation, O’Malley said.

State needs to set aside funding

“New Jersey should be a leader in energy storage,’’ he said, noting the state needs to set aside funding to make such projects happen.

He and others said electric vehicles could play an important role in achieving the state’s energy storage goals.

Willett Kempton, a professor at the University of Delaware, touted the virtues of vehicle-to-grid technology, a process where EVs can absorb excess power when demand for power is low in the grid and return some back to it when demand for power is high.

“EVs can help meet energy storage goals at a lower cost than stationary storage,’’ Kempton said. If New Jersey meets a goal of getting 330,000 EVs on the road, such a system could result in more than 2,178 megawatts of energy storage, exceeding the state’s goal of 2,000 MW by 2030, he said.

The state also is lagging behind much of the rest of the nation in AMI, advanced metering infrastructure, that provides a two-way communications system between utilities and customers. New Jersey ranks 48th for AMI, according to Gabrielle Figueroa, an attorney representing the Retail Energy Supply Association, a trade group. “There are amazing benefits to AMI,’’ she said, including pinpointing customer outages more quickly for their utilities.

Make sure there’s competition

In moving to modernize the grid, the state also was urged to ensure the process is competitive.

“Companies, like ours, only operate in areas where there is competition,’’ said Brian Kaufman, manager of regulatory affairs for EnerNOC, a provider of energy intelligence software.

The hearing was the fourth held by the state’s Clean Energy Office in the Board of Public Utilities. The agency hopes to come out with a new draft energy plan by late winter or early spring and adopt the plan by next June.