Op-Ed: Isn’t It Time to Get Real About New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan?

Fred Fastiggi | September 3, 2019 | Opinion
If an administration’s EMP confuses vision with genuinely implementable strategic plans, we waste time and money and run the risk of thorny implementation issues

Fred Fastiggi
Judging by the participants and emotion from speakers at the ongoing sessions for public comment on the Energy Master Plan (EMP), the latest edition seems to have fallen short of expectations. While many of the activists who turn out in numbers at these events are there as a result of organized interests that may not represent views of the average New Jersey resident, climate change remains a serious problem that needs to be addressed with a “moonshot” effort. Yet there are many ways to skin a cat. Draconian measures suggested by special interests tend to desensitize and trivialize the general public to the urgency of the issue. The authors of the EMP have correctly surmised that 100 percent clean energy is neither achievable nor practical in 30 short years. They have proposed what some view as a compromise or hedge, but with reflection it seems to be a decent start, putting New Jersey on a better course. A few additional points may be worth further consideration.

Changing nature of energy master plans

I once saved a Dilbert cartoon where the boss announces to Dilbert that “I’m putting you on the strategic planning team, it’s like work but without the satisfaction of accomplishing anything.”

We have had three energy master plans that I am intimately familiar with, which were developed by the Corzine, Christie, and now the Murphy administrations. I’m sure there were similar efforts either completed or underway during the Kean, Florio, Whitman, and McGreevey administrations. These master plans changed significantly from governor to governor since they reflected both the preferences of whoever happened to be sitting in the governor’s chair and the state of technology at a given point in time. The stark differences between the visions of Govs. Christie and Murphy are illustrative. One promotes natural gas and the other de-emphasizes it. And I am certain that whoever is sitting in the governor’s chair in 2022, if it isn’t Murphy, will have their own vision for what the energy future of New Jersey should be. When issued we tend to look at these documents as if they were divinely inspired, with inflexible tenets reflecting values that don’t lend themselves to adulteration from fads, trends, changes in opinion or technology. That is our first mistake.

We should avoid proceeding with objectives and developed implementation programs that reflect idealistic, but premature, vision. Trying to do this in a two-year window before the next election cycle leads to corner-cutting and blind groping with decisions that will cost millions in ratepayer dollars. Funding the latest commercially underdeveloped technology whose longevity is dependent on the moods and opinion of the latest governor is troubling. Most people have no problem helping with paying utility bills for those in need, but when the Societal Benefits Charge (SBC) expands to fund development of commercially immature technology, that’s asking a bit much. The unpleasant reality is that EMP initiatives can often be a hidden tax. The funds collected in SBCs or other tariff-adders often have nothing to do with consideration for something received or used by the ratepayer (for example, BTUs of KWHs). Altruistic economic assistance is acceptable to most people but less so when SBCs go to fund the romantic musings of special interests.

Greenhouse-gas reduction figures prominently in the latest EMP, as it should; however, the suggested approach is simplistic. Many equate “electric and renewables” with “cleaner environment and GHG reduction.” GHG should be addressed on several fronts, including reforestation, efficiency, nuclear generation, and a strategic reduction in fossil-fuel usage, but the practicality of attaining environmental goals represented by strategic electrification, even over a period of 30 years, has not been adequately addressed.

Consumer economics and preferences are ignored

I’ve lived in over a dozen places, all with gas service, and during that time, I’ve never had a minute’s worth of interruption in gas service due to natural events or other causes. In contrast, during Hurricane Sandy, I was without electric service for 13 days and unlike my gas service, periodic electric interruptions, are a monthly event.

I heat my home with hot-water baseboard that is supplied from a gas boiler. Domestic hot water comes from a gas-fired heater, we cook in our kitchen and on our grill on the deck with gas, and we dry our laundry with gas. I even have a gas-fired fireplace which came in handy when my electrically controlled gas boiler didn’t work during Sandy. My next-door neighbor previously had electric heat and about 10 years ago his fellow ratepayers who had long been subsidizing his electric heating ultimately funded part of his switch to gas because his electric heat had become so expensive.

From one consumer’s perspective, if one of my appliances that converts energy to heat, hot water, cooking, or laundry functions were to need replacement tomorrow, I would replace it with natural gas regardless of what the EMP says, even though I consider myself a progressive environmentalist with almost 30 years in the energy-efficiency industry. Gas is indisputably cheaper and more reliable and provides better functionality. On our runaway train to electrification, how do we intend to deal with customer resistance and preferences?

The electric-vehicle myth

I am a self-employed consultant often on the road making sales calls or meeting with clients. I drive over 35,000 miles in an average year and last year I filled up around 80 times. I fill around the corner from my home about half the time, and the other half I fill elsewhere in New Jersey or anywhere between New Hampshire and Virginia. Each fill-up takes around 10 minutes. There are always dozens of gas stations within a few miles of wherever I am. I’m never in fear of running out of gas and when my car needs servicing, I have loads of options.

Regarding plans for electric vehicles, have we given any real thought to how people are going to charge (refuel), when and where? My guess is that only the wealthiest are going to install the infrastructure for fast charging at their home. The rest of us aren’t going to schedule our working day around a four-hour public charge for a hundred miles of driving range. Most will charge on Level 2 chargers at home between 4 p.m. and 12 midnight. The first five or six hours of this timeframe are the peak usage period for residential electric demand. The addition of a charging station at a single home will more the double the peak demand from that residence. As the homeowner or his neighbors add additional EVs and charging stations, the demands on the local distributions system will indisputably require upgrades. Have we considered that cost in our vision?

Effects on NJ jobs and businesses

How about our New Jersey local gas distribution companies (LDCs)? South Jersey Industries, Elizabethtown, New Jersey Natural, and PSE&G have at minimum six thousand people who work in well-paying jobs directly related to servicing their gas distribution businesses. Add indirect company staff, plus the thousands of people who work in gas stations or maintaining gasoline vehicles and it becomes clear that the natural gas and fossil-fueled transportation sectors in New Jersey are significant economic engines. Looking at the EMP’s Policy vision to 2050 with regard to fossil fuels, if you were to implement it as written one of its effects though not stated, or perhaps not even recognized, would be to put these LDCs out of business in 30 short years as well as the thousands of filling-station personnel and auto mechanics who would no longer be needed. Has this consequential economic transition been accounted for or even recognized in the EMP?

Reliability and resiliency ignored

The reliability of our electric grid presents perhaps the greatest shortcoming of our current energy policy, and the EMP does little to address it. Attaining 100 percent clean energy given the current state of battery technology and economics, and the variable generation characteristics of wind and solar, make fossil-fueled generation a necessary resiliency alternative for the foreseeable future. If anyone has experienced the hardship of an extended power outage, which has thankfully only occurred during summers or mild seasons, they can visualize the threat grid instability represents if it were to occur in more severe seasons. Fossil-fueled distributed generation offers improved resilience over generation that is exclusively grid-based. Indeed, even grid-based power needs a balance of renewables and nuclear/natural gas to provide needed power reliability.

A different approach?

My point is, the problem with building strategy on quixotic visions ignores practicality. We seem to assume that transitional items are trivial details that will work themselves out in time with the belief that “if you build it, they will come.” The reality is we are often putting the cart before the horse.

The EMP is a solid visioning document reflecting the admirable environmentalist values of Murphy, his very capable staff and the Board of Public Utilities. But, if we confuse vision with genuinely implementable strategic plans, we waste time and money before technology and market forces develop and converge to alleviate thorny implementation issues that lurk beneath good intentions.

Meaningful EMPs must include realistic external and internal analyses resulting in initiatives that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time related. They should contain benign, universally accepted goals that are easily transferable from governor to governor. They should be phased in with digestible bites starting with the low hanging fruit, building to an eventual outcome where desirable and needed environmental objectives blend seamlessly with technology development and consumer preferences.

Ratepayers shouldn’t feel that they are having someone’s pet project shoved down their throats when they have neither the desire nor budget for presumptive measures that will cause unidentified implementation issues that offset any hoped-for achievement of environmental functionality. Let’s dispense with the emotional rhetoric and embrace the practical. Whether the comments are in the form of droning repetitive hyperbole from idealists wearing sandals and tropical shirts or crisp PowerPoint presentations from buttoned-down lobbyists, ignoring marketplace reality in strategic planning assures failure and only serves to cultivate consumer resistance to measures that can eventually facilitate better environmental stewardship.