New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities is continuing to hold public hearings on the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protections’s new energy master plan. The plan features a number of goals that the DEP wants the state to meet within a certain time frame.
The aim is to modernize the power grid and energy infrastructure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.
The most recent hearing was in Hackensack on Sept. 4, the closest to Hudson County. Two more hearings are slated for Camden and Toms River. Members of the public can submit comments by email at EMP.Comments@bpu.nj.gov.
The 108-page draft energy master plan calls for the state to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Currently, renewables make up about five percent of electric generation in the state.
As of 2018, 51.6 percent of the state’s power was generated from fracked natural gas, and 42.5 percent from nuclear. Natural gas is viewed as a “bridge” fuel that helps the state wean off coal and oil, both of which create about double the emissions of natural gas, as well as other harmful emissions. But fracked natural gas was cited in the energy master plan as a source of local air pollution in the form of smog.
Because the plan aims to get New Jersey’s power grid to 100 percent carbon-neutral by the year 2050, the state would have to create no net atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions. Generating stations would still emit greenhouse gases. But the pollution would have to be offset by reforestation or by investing in other carbon capture and storage technologies.
The energy master plan calls for electric grid modernization through the use of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), which are small, localized power supplies and storage facilities connected to the larger grid. They typically come in the form of battery stations and community solar farms.
The energy master plan calls for electrifying the transportation and construction sectors, which contribute more greenhouse gases than any other sectors, by improving the availability of charging ports.
In an op-ed, Board of Public Utilities President Joseph L. Fiordaliso called the plan a “lofty” and “achievable” way for the state to “survive climate change,” amid some of the worst coastal flooding, power outages, and record-breaking heat that New Jersey has ever seen.
“The Draft Energy Master Plan is focused on growing a strong, equitable clean energy innovation economy that creates thousands of jobs and economic benefits while supporting a sustainable way of life for all Garden State residents,” Fiordaliso said.
While climate activists support many of the statewide initiatives introduced in the energy master plan, they’re calling for more drastic cutbacks in fossil fuel.
Empower NJ, made up of environmental organizations at the national and state level, has called for either the DEP or Gov. Murphy to impose a moratorium on 12 proposed fossil fuel projects in the state, two of which are in Hudson County.
They don’t believe that goals listed in the energy master plan, including the state’s re-entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and reaching carbon neutrality, can be met if the current fossil fuel projects on the docket are constructed. The dozen proposed projects would increase GHG emissions by 30 percent if constructed, Empower NJ reported earlier this year.
Roger Quesada, a North Bergen resident and former 32nd District Assembly candidate, said he was concerned about the effects on local air quality if proposed natural gas plants come online in Hudson County. He was referring to New Jersey Transit’s microgrid station in Kearny and North Bergen Liberty Generating.
“As a lifelong Hudson County resident and asthmatic, I’m extremely concerned about the continued development of polluting fossil fuel infrastructure like the dangerous and unnecessary Meadowlands [North Bergen Liberty Generating] power plant proposal,” Quesada said. “Here in Hudson County we already have failing air quality from excessive smog pollution, and so many of our communities are in vulnerable coastal and flood prone areas.”
Stakeholders worry about the cost of an overhaul of New Jersey’s energy infrastructure, and who will bear the financial burden.
Nancy Griffeth, a member of a Unitarian environmentalist organization, took issue with the funding structure for energy efficiency programs proposed in the energy master plan, which would be funded partly by tax levies on energy bills.
“The important concern is how to pay for this program,” Griffeth said. “The burden of the charge falls disproportionately on low-income communities, who spend a higher portion of their income on electricity bills, which makes this a regressive tax.”
David Ortega, a union representative from International Union of Operating Engineers, said that the plan to reduce the use of natural gas in heating homes is too costly. He also said that there is not enough being done to keep the power grid’s infrastructure.
“It’s imperative that we don’t cut our nose off to spite our face,” Ortega said. “Seventy-five percent of New Jersey homes are currently being heated by natural gas. Costs of heating homes electrically is more than double. That’s a dramatic cost increase on families who are less fortunate. The plan also doesn’t address the desperate need to update our aged infrastructure to withstand storms, which hurts small businesses and local economies, and creates public health and safety risks.”
PSE&G energy savings
John Gilson, assistant vice president of CarePoint Health, was among several hospital executives who announced a full endorsement of the energy master plan, due to the fact that utility companies such as PSE&G will play a large role in energy efficiency projects pushed by the plan. The energy saving projects are designed to make large, power-hungry structures, including hospitals, more energy efficient, to meet the energy master plan’s demand for consumers to use less energy.
“Utilities are positioned to lead the state to a cleaner, more efficient future,” Gilson said. “We’ve been involved in energy saving projects with PSE&G in two of our hospitals, and my experience working with them leads me to be confident in the utility role in managing energy efficiency programs.”
Other representatives from engineering firms commended the plan for putting utility companies at the helm of energy efficiency programs in place of state departments.
“The master plan will require an exceptional workforce trained in energy mechanics, and the PSE&G energy savers program is doing that,” Patrick Ryan, a PSE&G mechanical contractor said. “The goals are going to require a hard, relentless push against current usage, and the energy saver program does that by taking out old equipment and putting in new equipment, something that no other program covers. It’s the only program that covers nonprofit organizations.”
The smart meter debate
One component of modernizing New Jersey’s power grid is the deployment of smart meters, which record energy consumption and transmit the information to a utility company for billing. Typically, they record energy consumption frequently, and can bring an end to estimated bills, which have been a major source of customer complaints, alongside unexpected charges. They are also seen as a means to keep electricity rates more stable during a transition period.
Critics who spoke at the hearing, mostly employed by PSE&G as meter readers, believe that the technology isn’t as reliable as advocates make it out to be.
“We do a lot more than just read the meters,” one said. “We’ve reported gas leaks, reported theft, helped elderly people, and there is more purpose than reading the meters. Over 400 jobs are at stake if this were to go through. It’s not just about job security, AMI has a ton of issues, especially with glitches.” AMI stands for Automated Metering Infrastructure.
Doug Scott, a representative of a local utility worker’s union, reiterated the sentiment.
“Not only are they not saving consumers any money, but they’re not safe for the public,” Scott said. “As a utility worker, I’ve reported thousands of safety hazards. I’ve reported gas leaks, crossed electric lines inside and outside of homes, illegal apartments and landlords taking advantage of tenants, and attended to children through our child watch program. Can a smart meter do any of that?”