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Growing power problems feared in NJ

By: Todd B. Bates |

Ready for more blackouts in New Jersey?

Extreme weather has caused more than 20 major outages in recent years, according to Climate Central, a Princeton-based nonprofit research and journalism organization. But a growing man-made problem could add to the natural disasters.

The 615-megawatt Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Ocean County is scheduled to close in 2019 and a number of other power plants will be retired in the next five years, prompting a state official to say that New Jersey may face rolling blackouts or brownouts if more electric generators aren’t built soon in the Garden State.

“I believe that there still is a very great concern out there in the Board of Public Utilities that if we don’t do something, there will still be problems,” Richard F. Engel, a state deputy attorney general, said during a recent federal court hearing.

The battle for more power in the state has pitted energy generators and policymakers against environmentalists and even government agencies. For instance, a court battle is under way to attempt to reverse a Pinelands Commission ruling that blocked construction of a natural gas pipeline in South Jersey that would power a proposed 439-megawatt electric generation plant in Cape May County.

Environmental activists claim more conservation, not more fossil-fuel plants, is the best way for New Jersey to maintain its energy needs. Clean, green, renewable energy such as wind and solar power is less vulnerable to prolonged disruption during natural disasters, according to activists.

“I think fossil-fuel generators are painting a doomsday picture of our energy future if we don’t continue to build new fossil-fuel plants,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, a group with more than 20,000 members. It doesn’t make sense to build more fossil-fuel plants just to deal with “the traditional short heat waves we get in the summer,” he said.

New Jersey’s electric power supply is at a crossroads. Demand for electricity is rising and Oyster Creek, which supplies power to an average of 600,000 homes, is scheduled to be retired by the end of 2019.

Meanwhile, the state’s goal of fostering hundreds of wind turbines off the Jersey Shore by 2020 is up in the air. The BPU has rejected a plan to build a five-turbine pilot project three miles off Atlantic City, saying there wouldn’t be enough economic and environmental benefits to state ratepayers. Project developer Fishermen’s Energy LLC of Cape May plans to appeal the matter in court.

Overall, the electric industry’s top challenges include demand for power, extreme weather and man-made and natural disasters, according to PJM Interconnection, North America’s largest power grid. The grid serves 61 million people across New Jersey, the District of Columbia and 12 other states.

Climate change is spawning an increase in extreme weather, including heat waves, heavy rain events and winter storms, according to a Climate Central report. Climate change is expected to boost the risk of more violent weather and more frequent damage to the electrical network, impacting hundreds of millions of people and costing the economy and Americans tens of billions of dollars annually.

Extreme weather has already taken its toll on New Jersey’s power grid. From 2003 to 2012, the state endured 22 major weather-related outages, according to the report. Outages include reported blackouts, fuel shortages and emergency appeals to reduce electricity use.

Hundreds of thousands of customers lost power for days following Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, a snowstorm in October 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. In summer 2012, a derecho’s powerful winds knocked out power to about three-quarters of all Vineland homes.

In the long run, it’s critical that New Jersey’s electric, natural gas and other utility systems become more durable and stable to withstand severe weather events, according to a state Department of Community Affairs action plan. In some cases, systems need to be hardened and redundant systems may be needed.

New Jersey utilities say they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build new transmission lines and upgrade infrastructure to increase reliability and help cope with extreme weather and demand for power.

In January, PJM dealt with record winter demand for electricity when temperatures plunged in the East after an influx of polar air. Some scientists think a wavier jet stream may lead to more extreme cold or warm weather episodes in the future.

“If we have a hot summer, then we’re going to find out all our weaknesses,” said Assemblyman Upendra J. Chivukula, D-Middlesex, who chairs the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.

Frank A. Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic & Environmental Policy at Rutgers University, said: “There’s always a chance of a large-scale blackout. No one denies that.”

Regional grid operator

Demand for electricity is escalating in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Peak summer demand at New Jersey’s four major electric utilities is projected to rise from 19,968 megawatts last year to 22,043 megawatts in 2023, or by 10.4 percent, according to PJM. Peak winter demand is forecast to increase by 9.9 percent, from 12,841 megawatts to 14,109 megawatts.

Each megawatt — one million watts — powers up to 1,000 homes. The regional power traffic cop, PJM Interconnection, oversees the distribution of about 185,000 megawatts of generating capacity.

Since 2009, retirement notices have been filed for coal plants that generate 26,000 megawatts of electricity in the PJM area across 12 states, according to the grid. That’s the equivalent of 40 Oyster Creeks shutting down.

But power plants that can generate more than 14,000 megawatts in the PJM region were under construction as of Dec. 31, according to PJM. Plants that would produce another 48,800 megawatts were under study, but there’s no certainty that all will be built.

The PJM grid will have adequate reserves in the future, but it will be operating under tighter conditions with the loss of the traditional cushion provided by large plants, according to a recent PJM report. Prices for consumers also will be more volatile, with the average household paying rates that rise and fall with energy demands.

In New Jersey, 185 new power facilities that would generate 9,796 megawatts are anticipated by 2020, according to PJM. But requests to deactivate plants have increased substantially in the last two years. Complicating planning: An energy generator only has to give 90 days notice before shuttering a plant.

And there are also problems when the power grid is stressed. As plants close or even go offline for service, they can alter the flow of electricity, which frequently leads to transmission line overloads. That, in turn, can undermine the voltage going out to homes and businesses, according to PJM.

“Our main priority is to make sure the system is reliable on any day of the year, no matter what the challenges are, and fortunately, we were able to do that” during the polar chill in January and unseasonably hot weather in September, PJM spokeswoman Paula DuPont-Kidd said. “But it was tight. It was challenging to make sure there was enough power to get to the places that needed it, but in the end, the light stayed on everywhere.”

According to PJM President and CEO Terry Boston, natural gas is rapidly becoming the fuel of choice in the PJM system, and the shift to gas away from coal is expected to take three to five years.

In 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed Oyster Creek’s license for 20 years. The 45-year-old plant, which opened in 1969, is the country’s oldest commercial reactor.

Also in 2009, Exelon Corp. reached an agreement with the state to close Oyster Creek by the end of 2019 — 10 years earlier than planned — in lieu of building expensive cooling towers.

Oyster Creek spokeswoman Suzanne D’Ambrosio said: “The intent is that Oyster Creek will operate safely and reliably until 2019, at which time we will retire the facility.”

Janet Tauro of Brick, a member of Grandmothers, Mothers & More for Energy Safety, an anti-nuclear group, said the lights won’t don’t go out when Oyster Creek goes offline.

“Within the last several years, we’ve had 1,100 megawatts of solar (energy) installed, and that more than makes up for Oyster Creek,” said Tauro, who chairs Clean Water Action New Jersey, an environmental group. “Energy efficiency standards are starting to kick in, which also makes up for the loss of Oyster Creek.”

But a nearly 4,000-megawatt solar facility would be needed to make up for the loss of Oyster Creek, a state document says. A recent 534-megawatt solar project in California needed 6,000 acres of land.

Rutgers’ Felder said, “I wouldn’t read too much into Oyster Creek retiring at this point because the markets, they’re anticipating that.”

“It’s something to monitor and make sure we’re on track,” Felder said. “It’s an issue,” not a crisis, he added.