Energy’s role in N.J.’s future: 5 questions with Melissa Orsen and Steve Cocchi of South Jersey Industries

Steve Cocchi

Chief financial officer

South Jersey Industries


Melissa Orsen

Senior vice president; President

South Jersey Industries; SJI Utilities


What is your organization’s role in the clean energy space? 

Steve Cocchi: “As one of New Jersey’s largest and most experienced energy providers, SJI is well-positioned to help our state meet its long-term clean energy goals. Since our inception over 100 years ago, SJI’s mission has been to deliver safe, reliable, affordable clean energy to the over 700,000 customers who depend on us every day. Last year, we doubled down on our mission by announcing a comprehensive clean energy plan, including a commitment to achieve a 70% carbon reduction of operational emissions and consumption by the year 2030 and 100% reduction by 2040. As part of that plan, SJI is also committing at least 25% of annual capital expenditures on sustainability projects. We believe that all of us have a shared responsibility to protect the environment we call home, and we are proud to be “Leading the Way” on our state’s progress toward a clean energy future. At SJI, with the advancement of our renewable energy investments, energy efficiency programs, infrastructure upgrades and the formation of a diverse and talented team of clean energy professionals, we are re-envisioning how we lead our employees, customers and communities to a better today and tomorrow.”

How does your organization promote and enable greater energy efficiency and sustainability?

Melissa Orsen: “SJI dedicates itself to involving and engaging employees, customers and the communities we serve in efforts to protect the environment and sustain the region’s natural resources. In 2021, SJI’s subsidiaries, South Jersey Gas and Elizabethtown Gas, with the support of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, expanded their energy efficiency programs by $216 million.

Over the course of the three-year expansion, customers will have greater access to rebates, financing, home energy audits, a high-efficiency products marketplace and a residential weatherization program. The program will help our customers save $329 million in energy costs and 104 million therms of energy over its lifetime, equating to preventing over 953,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In addition, our utilities partner with EmPowered Schools to educate students on energy efficiency. The yearlong, STEM-based curriculum teaches students about energy-efficient practices and positions them to lead energy-saving campaigns in schools, homes and communities. South Jersey Gas and Elizabethtown Gas also launched Conserve, an online resource that promotes energy efficiency and provides customers with tips and resources to help them reduce energy usage and consumption. SJI has also established several clean energy-focused teams to help maintain the company’s continued progress while internally promoting sustainable practices.”

What are the biggest challenges New Jersey faces today in its efforts to transition from oil and gas to renewable energy?

MO: “Maintaining energy affordability and reliability will be the biggest challenge our state will face as we transition our energy economy toward renewables. Embracing an overly aggressive plan that relies solely on the mass electrification of our transportation and building sectors will put the reliability and affordability of our state’s energy systems at risk by requiring the massive buildout of new electric generation and transmission, and the retrofitting of 75% of New Jersey homes.

At SJI, embracing proper environmental stewardship is at the core of our community-centric values, as is our commitment to enhancing the quality of life for our customers through the delivery of affordable, safe and reliable energy services. These goals are most effectively met when our state’s energy policies are appropriately calibrated to keep energy costs low while promoting continued investments in infrastructure.

Pending legislation (S1366 & A577) can help New Jersey utilities capture methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, freely escaping from water treatment plants, landfills, food waste facilities and agricultural sites, and repurpose the methane for usage within the existing gas system. The bill will also help New Jersey take a more prominent role in the hydrogen revolution that is sweeping the energy sector.”

How does your organization’s efforts play into economic and environmental advancements?

MO: “South Jersey Gas and Elizabethtown Gas are undertaking several multiyear infrastructure investment programs to enhance the safety and reliability of our gas utility systems while also furthering the economic development in our region by creating jobs. Through 2021, South Jersey Gas replaced more than 800 miles of gas main as part of its second phase of the Accelerated Infrastructure Replacement Program, which targeted replacing aging cast iron and bare steel in the South Jersey Gas distribution infrastructure to ensure system reliability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We recently completed the Storm Hardening and Reliability Program designed to enhance the South Jersey Gas distribution system in coastal communities, generating 413 jobs. In addition, the Elizabethtown Gas Infrastructure Investment Program is a $300 million five-year program that will replace 250 miles of vintage cast iron, bare steel, ductile iron, copper and vintage plastic mains and services. Last year, South Jersey Gas cut the ribbon on the New Sentury Pump Station in South Harrison Township. This $69 million infrastructure project improves reliability for customers. At this same location, we are designing an electrolyzer that will produce green hydrogen and deliver it to the South Jersey Gas distribution system in 2023.”

What do you see as New Jersey’s biggest long-term obstacles to getting to net zero by 2050?

SC: “We commend our state for putting forth a bold agenda that proposes to alter the state’s energy landscape in a very meaningful way. Consistent with the goals of our state’s leaders, SJI is continuously investing in innovative ways to protect the environment through infrastructure replacement programs, energy efficiency measures, decarbonization initiatives and renewable energy production. Currently, our investments are housed in technologies such as renewable natural gas sourced from wastewater treatment facilities, landfills, food waste facilities and dairy farms. Additionally, SJI and Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind have entered into a memorandum of understanding on the development of a pilot program to explore the production of “green hydrogen,” a clean energy source that can be blended with SJI’s supply to lower carbon intensity.

As our state continues its progress toward a 100% carbon-free future, and as 75% of homes in New Jersey use natural gas to heat their homes, embracing natural gas as a “bridge” fuel will be imperative. Natural gas provides us with an opportunity to transition to renewable energy while keeping energy costs low, allowing for further investments in renewable technologies. Moreover, until solar, wind and storage technologies are fully dependable and resilient, we must continue to have access to natural gas.”