By Dave Rible
There is near-universal agreement among the state’s utility providers and construction industries that we must deal with climate change. Many of these companies and organizations are already taking steps, on their own, to deal with the issue. The N.J. Board of Public Utilities’ movements towards electrifying buildings, however, has brought these groups together in another way: to showcase just how potentially damaging a rushed proposal is to the people of New Jersey.
Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order calling for 400,000 homes, 20,000 commercial buildings and 10% of all low-to-moderate income buildings to have zero-carbon-emission heating and cooling systems by 2030. Following its most recent board meeting, the BPU is now beginning to implement these goals through a plan that would, ultimately, force electric utilities to begin this electrification process.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether electrification and meeting the governor’s goals is even possible. The short answer is no. The infrastructure to meet these standards does not exist, neither in New Jersey, nor anywhere in the country. Current transmission lines went up when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were still playing baseball. They were built for another time and are simply not equipped to handle the influx of electric power needed under the BPU’s proposal.
Think about the extra capacity needed for our electric grid to power an additional half a million buildings. Now consider that New Jersey does not have the capacity to provide ample charging stations for the state’s electric vehicles. NJ Coalition of Automotive Retailers President Jim Appleton recently noted that his organization is attempting to upgrade three chargers at their headquarters but they’ve been told by the utility that it will “be 42 weeks before they can install the transformer needed to upgrade our service.”
The recent proposal by Governor Murphy to require, by 2035, that all new cars manufactured in New Jersey be electric will not only exacerbate this problem, but it may have the unintended consequence of merely proving how unprepared we are for electrification in general.
Some might ask, “Why not just update the infrastructure?” We certainly would not object to that. In fact, it’s completely necessary. The size and scale of the upgrades necessary, however, will not be accomplished overnight. It will take years to transform the grid to meet the energy needs required under this proposal. To provide a sense of how extensive those changes would be, the U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that the cost of creating a clean electricity grid could reach over $1 trillion.
Cost, meanwhile, factors heavily into the BPU’s proposal. It has yet to be identified just how the costs of this extensive electrification will occur. In testimony submitted to the BPU, PSEG noted that even if every utility was given $10,000 per home for this effort, it would only convert 15,000 homes in three years, “leaving 385,000 homes to be converted” by 2030.
Will homeowners be left on the hook to cover those costs, and for a program they essentially had no say in? As representatives of the construction industry, we find such a scenario especially disturbing. The industry is moving toward electrification of vehicles and equipment but that pace is slow because the energy and materials needed to support electrification just do not exist in abundance. Who is to say that we are not next in the rush to electrify without considering the consequences.
This rush to electrify could have long-term consequences. Last year, California had to tell residents to conserve energy in the middle of a heat wave or face devastating rolling blackouts because their energy grid was stretched so thin. In 2021 Texas suffered heat outages during a historic winter storm. Is that what we want in New Jersey? Electric heating and air conditioning won’t make much difference if our grid system completely collapses under the weight of this proposal.
We have to deal with climate change in a smart, effective manner. This proposal, however, is essentially plugging one hole in a dam only to create three more. Rushing to electrify buildings when the capabilities to do so literally do not exist will cause substantial damage to the state and to ratepayers. The BPU should have shelved this plan for good and the state should come up with a comprehensive plan on this issue that addresses costs, supplies and realistic timing.
Dave Rible is the executive director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey.