The Big Challenge for NJ’s Clean Energy: Juggling All the Moving Parts

NJ Spotlight roundtable is told climate change will be the big driver of changes in how energy is applied, delivered and used in the state and elsewhere

Scott Weiner, former president of the BPU and former commissioner of the then state Department of Environmental Protection and Energy
The state is mapping out a path to a clean energy future, a goal that augurs fundamental changes in how energy is applied, delivered, and used not only in New Jersey, but also the rest of the country, according to experts and other officials who took part in an NJ Spotlight roundtable Friday.

In a wide-ranging discussion on the state’s energy policies, there was broad consensus on moving forward on the Murphy administration’s targets to have half of the state’s energy come from clean energy by 2030 and all of it by 2050, but also fears of missteps and the need for mid-course corrections along the way.

The discussion occurred as state officials are poised within the next three months to decide whether utility customers fork over hundreds of million of dollars to preserve three nuclear power units in South Jersey and a trio of proposals to develop offshore-wind farms off the Jersey coast. Those projects are projected to cost billions, also funded by ratepayers.

Waiting in the wings are policies to electrify the transportation sector, to revamp the state’s solar sector, to spur less use of gas and electricity, and to figure out the shape and configuration of a much smarter electric grid — all at a time when scientist warn climate change is occurring and we’re running out of time to avert its most dire impacts.

“We’re screwed,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, giving an admittedly profane assessment. “I don’t think we have a long time. If you didn’t get whacked in Sandy, get prepared.’’

‘…unstoppable transformation’

Panelists Curtis Fisher of the National Wildlife Federation and Nicole Sitaraman of Sunrun, Inc.
Others echoed that assessment, suggesting climate change will be one of the drivers of what Scott Weiner, a former Cabinet official in the Florio administration, called “an unstoppable transformation of the electric grid and infrastructure.’’

Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of many of the state’s most meaningful laws to respond and adapt to climate change, has two more bills he expects to introduce this spring: one to require all New Jersey utilities to switch to non-carbon sources of energy by 2050 and a bill to ban hydrofluorocarbons, a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

Weiner, a former president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and former commissioner of the then state Department of Environmental Protection and Energy, said a clean energy law signed last May and a soon-to-be-released Energy Master Plan, provide building blocks to achieve the aggressive clean energy goals.

“What’s missing is the connective tissue that holds them together,’’ Weiner said in a keynote speech before the panel discussions.

“What are our priorities and how do we sequence them? What do we want to do, what do we need to do, and what can we afford to wait on? This will allow the most cost-effective deployment of human and financial resources,’’ he said.

A different kind of grid

The future energy grid will be built around and rely on distributed energy resources, fewer centralized power plants than exist today, and more localized ways of providing the energy that residents and businesses need, such as solar energy, Weiner said.

Perhaps more importantly, the state will never achieve its clean energy goals without making the power grids smarter. To Weiner, that means a smart, cost-effective deployment of advanced metering infrastructure, systems in place in many other states, but not New Jersey.

Several panelists talked about the needs to have more data and analysis of what will work for New Jersey as it pursues its clean energy agenda in a rapidly evolving energy sector.

For instance, the state has established aggressive goals to develop energy storage systems, which are integral to the widespread adoption of intermittent renewable energy sources, like solar and wind. By 2021, the state wants to develop 600 megawatts of energy storage.

But in this area, as well as others, Larry Barth, director of corporate strategy for New Jersey Resources, said “we are not anywhere yet on storage. We don’t know what we don’t know.’’

Big uncertainties over technologies and costs

Frank Felder, director of the Rutgers Energy Institute and Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy, talked about the unknowns of trying to develop an energy policy over the next 30 years when there are huge uncertainties about technologies and the costs.

“We need analysis to proceed ahead of these policies,’’ Felder said. He argued that evaluation and assessment of the policies the state chooses to pursue is critical, adding it will allow the state to make mid-course assessments.

Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey state director of Clean Water Action, argued for an immediate correction: a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects. The state will never achieve its clean energy goals, nor its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, if it approves any of the pending natural-gas pipeline projects in the state, as well as any of handful of new gas-fired power plants.

“We can’t do both fossil fuels and 100 percent renewables,’’ she said.

Geraldine Smith, deputy general counsel and managing director of environment for PSEG, warned that if the company’s three nuclear power plants shut down, they will be replaced by natural gas plants that will make it difficult to achieve the state’s goals to reduce carbon pollution.

“We can’t possibly achieve that goal unless nuclear is part of the equation,’’ Smith said. Closing the plants would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 15 million tons annually, she added.

‘It may mean more nuclear’

Sen. Smith agreed. “The big policy is getting out of the carbon world,’’ he said. “It may mean more nuclear.’’

Nicole Sitaraman, senior manager of public policy for Sunrun Inc., argued solar needs to be a part of the future grid, saying it can be crucial to build a more distributed, clean and resilient power grid. The state also needs to prioritize those communities disproportionately affected by pollution and which have yet to benefit from the emerging clean energy economy.

Barth and others argued the state’s solar policies need to be looked at, specifically a cost cap that was part of a clean energy law that sought to lower ratepayers’ costs for subsidizing solar.

“Those cost caps are not well designed right now,’’ he said, calling them incompatible with clean energy goals. “It was thrown into the mix during an imperfect legislative process. Those caps need to be addressed.’’