What Will It Take to Chart a Clean-Energy Future for NJ?

Gov. Phil Murphy wants 50% of the state’s power to come from renewable sources by 2050, but the path to that goal may not be easy

With the state already starting to weather the effects of climate change — more intense storms, higher temperatures and rising seas — Gov. Phil Murphy’s landmark clean-energy bill puts the state on a path to achieving the highest standard for renewable energy in the country by requiring 50 percent of the state’s power to come from clean renewables like wind and solar by the year 2050.

“The Clean Energy Act makes a good start on bringing us something new: community solar,” said state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe.

McCabe said it would be available to all, including people living in low-income housing developments and multifamily complexes.

“Even if they cannot put solar panels on their roof, they’ll be able to participate in community-based solar projects that will allow them to participate in getting their home energy from solar energy,” she said.

Credit: MD Public Service Commission
community solar
New Jersey is already one of the nation’s leading solar-energy states with nearly 100,000 arrays installed. It’s the fastest growing segment of the state’s clean-energy sector. But the system’s costs, which get passed on to customers, are high.

The Murphy administration recently published a draft of the state’s new Energy Master Plan on how it wants to produce, distribute, consume and conserve energy.

The plan lays out an ambitious road map to achieve the governor’s clean-energy goals — from pushing renewables, to expanding the power grid, and electrically heating homes and businesses.

Natural gas still key?

But the plan also maintains the state’s heavy reliance on natural gas, which heats 75 percent of New Jersey homes. The prospect of installing pipelines across the state has been controversial. But McCabe says it’s cheaper and greener.

“The natural gas structure that was built has helped to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the state of New Jersey over the past eight or 10 years,” she said.

Catherine McCabe, DEP commissioner
The state’s nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases at all, so McCabe says they’ll remain a key part of the energy portfolio.

“Salem and Hope Creek are both at the end of the Delaware River where it comes out into the bay and they are on the water, but they are built extremely well. They’ve taken a lot of precautions to prevent being damaged,” McCabe said.

The new energy blueprint encourages utilities to further upgrade the power grid on shore, and they may have to consider connecting to power from offshore.

Wind farms could be big business

Murphy’s executive order includes an ambitious plan to harness the wind. His goal is to generate 3,500 megawatts of offshore-wind energy, or enough to power a million and a half homes, by 2030.

Some developers are already lining up to bid. The Danish company Ørsted has opened an office in Atlantic City to support the firm’s Ocean Wind Project, a 250-square-mile patch of sea some 10 miles off Atlantic City’s coast that would be the future site of wind turbines.

Norwegian company Equinor is eyeing wind farms off Sandy Hook that it says could be up and running by 2024. Another developer is looking at tracts off Cape May.

Credit: Creative Commons
Offshore wind
The huge scale of the wind farms might require the state to train a workforce, develop supply chains and invest hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading ports to handle the assembly and shipping of turbines. The state may also be required to make an upfront investment in electric-vehicle charging stations.

“At least as of today, the federal incentive is in place for the purchase of electric vehicles and we need to get a charging infrastructure underway,” said McCabe. “DEP has a program called ‘It Pays To Plug In’ and we’ve spent about $800,000 so far and have a $2.5 million waiting list; it has been for a workplace charger, but so far we’re expanding the program so that multi-unit dwellings will also be able to have electric chargers.”

Dr. Robert Kopp, director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, has an eye on the policies of clean energy as well as the science.

“I think he is heading in the right direction,” Kopp said of Murphy’s plan. “The state has launched a coastal resilience planning process. It can’t be a top-down process. It really has to be a process that hears the voices of the people in our municipality and leads to strategies that are owned by coastal communities.”

The Board of Public Utilities is holding hearings around the state to get feedback and, it hopes, buy-in from citizens.

“So what the BPU, and we, and the government entirely needs to be doing is looking for the sweet spot that is what we need to do but what we can afford,” said McCabe.

Still, the rollout of clean energy will be costly. The greatest challenge will be finding a way to pay for replacing an aging power grid and funding the state’s ambitious energy goals while keeping residents’ utility bills affordable.

This story is a part of “Sinking Cities,” a national PBS series produced in conjunction with Peril and Promise, a public media initiative from WNET in New York telling the human stories of climate change.