Everyone has known about solar for years. And, if you don’t know about offshore wind, you haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in the state. But do you know about renewable natural gas and green hydrogen, both of which already are in use?
As New Jersey utilities make the move to a clean energy future — striving to meet Gov. Phil Murphy’s lofty goals of a 100% clean-energy economy with an 80% reduction in state-generated greenhouse gases by 2050 — they know there are many ways to get there.
They are working on all of them.
That was one of the biggest takeaways from the recent ROI-NJ webinar: “Energy Sustainability and Infrastructure.”
Let’s start with renewable natural gas. In the simplest of definitions, it’s the process of turning organic waste into a clean, reliable energy source.
And, while the process produces clean energy … it’s a little dirty. The process starts by capturing the methane that is produced from existing waste streams, including animal waste (exactly what you think), food waste and landfills.
A new-day version of trash to treasure, one could say.
“The energy industry already recognizes renewable natural gas as a viable emissions reduction strategy,” she said. “At South Jersey Industries, it’s a big part of our strategy. And we are investing significantly in renewable energy.”
And not just in New Jersey.
“We have a development partner, REV LNG,” McMullen said. “We’ve broken ground on eight renewable natural gas facilities at dairy farms. We have four in Michigan, three in upstate New York and one in Connecticut, at one of the state’s largest dairy farms.”
SJI also has six large facilities planned to enter construction later this year in Minnesota and South Dakota, she said.
“Because of SJI and REV LNG’s continuing partnership, we’re positioned well to become a national leader in waste energy projects by 2025,” she said.
New Jersey Resources is going big on green hydrogen, something it feels has enormous potential — and is an energy source that fits nicely into the company’s profile in the state.
Green hydrogen is defined as hydrogen produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, using renewable electricity. It’s a flexible fuel that can run through underground infrastructure.
Especially infrastructure that already has been built.
Amy Cradic, the chief operating officer of non-utility business, strategy and external affairs at New Jersey Resources, said the company gravitated toward green hydrogen because it works nicely with the $2.3 billion of gas pipelines upgrades that the company has made in its mostly coastline territories (all made of modern plastic and steel, no cast iron, so its environmentally sound).
“We said, ‘How do we utilize that to lower emissions in the state?’” she said.
The company looked overseas.
“We were watching what was happening in Europe at the time, four and a half years ago — green hydrogen was already taking place there,” she said. “We thought: ‘Let’s help lead the policy. We have the infrastructure, let’s do a proof-of-concept demonstration project.’”
The company uses an electrolyzer, which helps create a flexible fuel that it can blend into our existing infrastructure.
“This isn’t new technology, but we’re just starting to talk about it for home heating,” she said. “And the reason why it’s such a powerful tool for that decarbonization narrative is because you’re utilizing something we’ve already got, it’s already built.”
Which makes it even more cost-effective, Cradic said.
It also adds another tool to the clean energy toolbox — something more than electricity.
“We want multiple sources of energy to create that reliability,” she said.
New Jersey Resources already is showing that it works.
“We’re the first utility on the East Coast to be blending it — it’s going to our customers’ homes today. We’re really excited about it.”
New is cool. So is old and reliable.
Susanna Chiu, senior director, operation services, at Public Service Electric & Gas, talked about the company’s huge efforts around solar energy and offshore wind, partnering with Ørsted on a project.
But, she also reminded the audience that, in the excitement over offshore wind, they should not forget about nuclear energy, too.
“There’s a lot of work yet to be done (on wind energy) and a lot of complexity,” she said. “It’s important for us to preserve our existing nuclear fleet as our No. 1 source of carbon-free power generation.
“So, while the country ramps up on renewable energy, the technology advances and the other infrastructure gets built, it’s critical to maintain that nuclear fleet for that carbon-free source of energy.”
Keeping up with these technologies as they grow is key, offered Rebecca Moll Freed, a partner at Genova Burns.
She said solar, once the darling of clean energy fans, is starting to see some pushback because the rules and regulations around it are not being updated fast enough to keep it as a sensible option.
Moll Freed said she helps clients navigate through the solar space, whether it’s the land-use process, community buy-in or interfacing before the Board of Public Utilities.
The problem, she said, is that some of the rules and regulations are from 2012.
“Sometimes, the law can be an impediment, because it’s past a certain snapshot in time,” she said. “(We need to) take stock of where we are now and say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve done for the last 10 years, but, looking forward, here are some of the changes we need to really move us to the next level.”
Ken Sheehan, counsel at Genova Burns and a former regulator, said developers are noticing.
“We have been seeing a fair amount of developers who have some concerns about putting capital at risk when the rules are somewhat inflexible — and sometimes appear to be predicated upon an understanding of where the world was two or three years ago,” he said.
Cost is important, too.
Sheehan told the audience that ensuring the affordability of some of these clean energy projects is key.
“Some of the assumptions about the cost of solar have not proven out in the last two years,” he said. “And, I think we’re going to see a push over the next six months to 12 months from the developer side to have those kinds of conversations with the board to understand that, if the governor’s goals are going to be met, the incentive process needs to remain in place — and it needs to remain a competitive incentive to ensure that New Jersey continues to be at the forefront of developing solar.”
The business community may be taking a cautious approach, but the utilities are not. SJI, New Jersey Resources and PSE&G all are looking at all of these possibilities.
New Jersey Resources, Cradic said, is all-in on solar, too.
“We’re the largest solar operator in the state,” she said. “We have about a billion dollars invested and plan to invest another billion dollars.”
McMullen talked of how SJI has a pilot program in green hydrogen — and is actively looking to invest there and in other areas.
“At SJI, we’re committed at least 25% of our annual capital expenditures on sustainability investments,” she said. “We have a hydrogen demonstration project that’s going on down in our South Jersey Gas territory.
“And we are working, not only within our companies, but with others. We have a Linden renewables project where they’re bringing in trash and creating (renewable natural gas). So, it’s not just about what we’re doing, it’s how we’re partnering with businesses to work together to provide renewable energy.”
The partnerships in clean energy run deep.
Cradic said New Jersey Resources was thrilled when President Joe Biden authorized a greater commitment to green hydrogen earlier this summer.
“They’re saying, ‘We want to bring green hydrogen to scale in the next decade — and we’re going to help you get there to bring that cost down, so you have cost parity between natural gas.’
Investments also can come from private sources.
“I think you’re going to need private capital,” she said. “You’re going to have to let the free market say ‘Where do we want to invest in innovation,’ and you’re going to have to have subsidies to bring it to scale.”
Cradic said support for research & development is crucial to the push for more clean energy.
“You cannot get there without innovation,” she said. “You’ve got to bring things to bear in order to drive down that cost and move as quickly as possible.”