A clean energy source?

Officials cheer $1.8B natural gas-fueled plant, environmentalists wary

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North Bergen Liberty Generating spokesman Brian Hague speaks at the press conference announcing the power plant.
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Local officials gathered at the proposed site for the power plant, in an industrial section of North Bergen, on April 25.
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A photo simulation of the current proposed site for the North Bergen Liberty Generating power plant.
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North Bergen Liberty Generating spokesman Brian Hague speaks at the press conference announcing the power plant.
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Local officials gathered at the proposed site for the power plant, in an industrial section of North Bergen, on April 25.
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A photo simulation of the current proposed site for the North Bergen Liberty Generating power plant.

A company called North Bergen Liberty Generating—a subsidiary of power producing company Diamond Generating Corp—formally announced plans last week to bring a $1.8B natural gas combined cycle power plant to North Bergen. If no delays occur, the plant could start construction next year and be operational by 2022.
On April 25, project officials and local politicians met at the plant’s proposed 15-acre site near Railroad Avenue and 94th Street by Bellman’s Creek, currently occupied by a construction demolition recycling facility, but zoned for a power plant. It would power 1.2 million residences in New York City, with none in New Jersey.
The project, which is awaiting approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Environmental Protection Agency, would be a financial boon for North Bergen, New Jersey, and New York, officials said at the meeting. It is located within the Meadowlands District, but does not encroach on its wetlands.
“It is no drain on services to North Bergen,” said North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco. “It’s going to bring millions of dollars in taxes.”
(Toward the week’s end, Town Administrator Chris Pianese said the town is negotiating a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement with NBLG. Because the talks are preliminary, officials aren’t sure how much the PILOT will bring in for the town, including after it expires. PILOT money tends to go toward the town’s tax levy.)
The 1,200 megawatt facility would bring in $471.93 million from local construction, according to an economic analysis. It will also bring in thousands of unionized construction jobs, according to officials.
But with its planned natural gas usage, there come a number of questions and concerns about possible environmental damages. Some local environmentalists are not on board.

Lower emissions?

NBLG says the plant would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With the imminent closure of the Indian Point nuclear facility in New York, “it is imperative that a clean, reliable electric generation facility is constructed to meet the area’s rising energy demands,” NBLG added, in a press statement.
The plant would be 34 percent more efficient than the average existing power plant serving New York City, NBLG says.
NBLG would also purchase allowances from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to offset 100 percent of anticipated carbon dioxide emissions, the company says.
However, though natural gas does reduce carbon emissions by 50 to 60 percent when burned in a plant, compared to emissions from a new coal plant—according to the Union of Concerned Scientists–it is still a fossil fuel at day’s end. It’s composed primarily of methane, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet by 86 times as much as carbon dioxide, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
While people regularly use natural gas as a fuel for heating and cooking, and it is considered safe at lower levels, it also emits nitrogen oxides—a precursor to smog–when burned. Last year, CO2 emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas usage increased 1.7 percent globally, according to the International Energy Agency, an energy forum to help ensure energy security for 28 member countries.

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“There’s a lot of questions that have to be asked.” – Don Torino

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Environmentalists speak out

Don Torino, who heads the preservationist Bergen County Audubon Society, opposes the project. “There’s a lot of questions that have to be asked,” Torino said.
Though officials maintain the site is industrial, Torino believes residents need to inquire about things such as air quality near the site.
“We need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels and to clean energy,” said Jeff Tittel, director for the New Jersey Sierra Club, which promotes responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems. He argues the project impedes Gov. Murphy’s statewide push towards clean energy.
Tittel is also worried that the project will encourage more natural gas pipelines and fracking—the controversial process involving drilling into the earth, and injecting water, sand, and chemicals into rocks to release natural gas inside.
Critics argue the process causes water contamination.
NBLG spokesman Brian Hague confirmed workers will build a 1,900 foot connection to the nearby Transco pipeline to use its natural gas, though he said it would be the only one created for the project.
He also responded that “this [project] has nothing to do with fracking.”
Tittel also disputed claims the plant is more environmentally friendly.
“It’s like saying, ‘This is the cleanest bullet I’ll shoot you with,’” he said.
Power plants also have cooling towers to cool down the plant’s turbines using water, Tittel said. These towers produce steam, known as chemical drift, which can impact plant life and cause water pollution.
The biggest opponent to the plant might just be Bill Sheehan. The dedicated conservationist founded the Hackensack Riverkeeper in 1997 and still serves as its executive director.
“I’m just really upset that once again, here we are in the Meadowlands—we worked very hard to make sure the Meadowlands is clean and green—and along comes this plant at this stage of my life,” Sheehan said. “I need a fight, and I’m going to give them one.”
When the power plant reaches the end of its life cycle, Sheehan also suspects the owner will claim it is a stranded asset and use it as a tax write-off for years, tying up land acres that could go to better uses. Stranded assets are properties that have become obsolete or non-performing. They are becoming more common among power plants, which are seeing their economic lives curtailed due to transitions to a low-carbon economy (e.g. initiatives such as the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature rise this century below two degrees Celsius.)
Should obsolescence become a reality, Sheehan would like to see the site closed down and remediated as a solar farm, or other clean energy site instead. He doesn’t believe the plant will have a greatly reduced carbon footprint.
“Unless the people prove their emissions are equivalent to a solar farm, it’s a shell game,” he said. “They’re telling you things they think you want to hear.”

Official responds

Hague didn’t deny that natural gas can have a negative environmental effect.
However, he said the plant is the best possible option, and that renewable energy options, like solar and wind energy, need much more space to produce the same amount of electricity as the NBLG plant would.
NBLG is additionally pursuing solar initiatives, he said.
“The issue becomes, how do you provide this much generating capacity through renewables?” Hague asked, after the conference. He said solar power options would need land six times the size of Central Park to generate as much capacity as the plant. Wind turbines, he said, would need space the size of Hudson and Bergen counties combined to create the same amount of generating capacity.
“What is the alternative to providing the electricity?” he asked. “Are they suggesting we should clear cut forests and put solar rays in the Meadowlands?”
Sheehan responded that the NBLG is “lying through their teeth” about renewable energy sources needing mass amounts of land for mass output.
“You can put solar panels on rooftops, telephone poles, anywhere you want,” he said. “We have hundreds and hundreds of acres that can be producing energy. For them to say that, it’s a false positive.”

Hannington Dia can be reached at hd@hudsonreporter.com