Thankfully, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott got little traction when he named wind and solar as the main culprits for his state’s disastrous loss of power in the recent deep freeze. (How do you say “chutzpah” in Texan?) But even reasonable people might wonder if New Jersey’s planned shift from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energy like wind and solar risks outages.
The short answer is that the lights will stay on when New Jersey is a 100% clean-energy state — if we develop the right mix of renewables and other clean resources.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) have become leaders on the complex challenges inherent in removing emissions from the electric grid. In 2019, the administration developed critical insights, detailed in the state Energy Master Plan, about the mix of resources needed to achieve emissions goals while maintaining reliability and keeping costs low. Just this month, the board proposed novel ideas about how states within a regional electric grid can implement the right mix of clean resources.
In both areas, New Jersey’s approach is clear-eyed and pragmatic, keeping grid reliability as the top priority.
In the Energy Master Plan, New Jersey took a careful, nuanced look at how best to maintain the power grid’s reliability as the state and region remove all fossil fuels from electric generation. In 2019, the BPU hired Evolved Energy Research (EER) for cutting-edge modeling, using a range of possible scenarios to evaluate pathways to decarbonize the regional electric grid.
Three types of essential resources
The main insight: A clean-energy transition that keeps costs low and maintains a reliable electric grid, with the reserves needed for any emergency, must include the right amount of three basic types of resources. Just like a basketball team needs forwards, guards and a center, the clean-energy resources needed for affordable, reliable decarbonization must fill three distinct, indispensable roles.
First, renewable-energy sources are the decarbonization team’s equivalent of power forwards — solar and wind will be the team’s workhorses, providing most generation, but only when there is ample sunshine and wind.
Second, flexible, fast-acting resources, such as batteries, will enable the grid to store several hours’ worth of excess clean wind and solar energy to help meet demand when the sun sets or the wind dies down. Other flexible demand-side resources will shift some energy use to times when renewables are abundant and electricity prices are low. Such flexible resources are like the guard who holds the ball and passes to the forward when there is an opening. With these two players — renewables and flexible resources — a large share of electric demand can be met by emission-free resources.
Now we come to the anchor of the clean-energy team — clean, firm resources — technologies that can be available whenever needed, regardless of weather, to meet the demand for electricity. Existing nuclear plants are one example. Other options may be gas plants run on zero-carbon fuels or new types of economical, long-term energy storage.
If we learn one thing from the tragic failures in Texas, it is that firm resources must really be firm — especially during high demand and strong system stresses, both of which are expected to increase as a result of climate change. This requires both a wise choice of technologies, and strong performance standards for their maintenance, preparedness and operation.
Keeping dependable electricity affordable
This raises a related question, central to the debate in Texas: Is dependable electric service affordable?
EER’s work for New Jersey shows that it should be possible to dramatically reduce emissions, maintain a reliable system and keep costs low. Consistent with findings from similar studies, New Jersey’s analysis revealed that including clean, firm resources, along with wind, solar and batteries, reduces total costs. Clean, firm resources play a key role in keeping the lights on during extreme weather and help keep total costs low by making sure wind, solar and batteries are used in the most economical and efficient ways possible.
Indeed, clean, firm resources are key to both avoiding a Texas-style disaster and to keeping electricity affordable throughout the transition to a fully clean electric grid.
Keeping electricity affordable in New Jersey also depends on a second factor identified by EER — maintaining a prudent mix of in-state and regional clean-energy resources. This is not surprising, since today renewable energy from inside New Jersey can cost 20 times more per megawatt hour than equally clean renewable energy from less densely populated neighboring states.
It is alarmingly clear that climate change is responsible for an increase in extreme weather events, making the move to carbon-free electricity, as the Murphy administration detailed in the 2019 Energy Master Plan, more imperative than ever.
Unlike Texas, New Jersey is planning for — and moving aggressively to create — a truly reliable, affordable and clean-energy future.