What are the two biggest threats to human existence today? According to New Jersey State Senator Bob Smith, they are:
- Nuclear proliferation
- Global climate change.
As bad as they both are, I would argue that global climate change is a bigger risk. As catastrophic and tragic a loose nuke or even all-out thermonuclear war would be, there’s a good chance the human species would survive. But our bodies and our planet are so fragile that global climate change has the potential to wipe out the species as the climate change due to an asteroid did for dinosaurs sixty million years ago.
Global climate change, an issue that is (justifiably) receiving more and more attention, and was the topic of a panel discussion sponsored by NJ Spotlight in Trenton today. Since there’s incontrovertible evidence that carbon emissions are a major factor in the deleterious changes to our environment, the theme of the discussion was “How Does New Jersey Achieve a Low-Carbon Future?”
To the organizers’ credit, none of the four panelists was a climate change denier. NJ Spotlight has a reputation of dealing with facts, and even the head of the state’s largest energy company, PSE&G, understands the importance of this issue. (PSE&G is also a sponsor of NJ Spotlight. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether this is a problem here.)
Reducing New Jersey’s carbon footprint is a tremendously difficult problem, both from a technological point of view and from a policy and economic perspective. As Ralph Izzo, Chairman, President, and CEO of PSE&G, pointed out, there are three classes of stakeholders who have to be considered: consumers, investors, and the environment. With my background in technology, I struggle to understand the myriad of policies, regulations, incentives, and penalties associated with our state’s energy policies. We also have federal policy and international agreements to deal with.
The panel started off with a discussion of nuclear energy generation in New Jersey. There are currently four nukes in the state, three in Salem County and one in Ocean County. The youngest is 31 years old – the oldest (scheduled for decommissioning in 2019) is 47. While nukes are carbon-free, they present their own unique risks as we have seen all too often in Pennsylvania, Ukraine, and Japan.
So how does New Jersey meet its energy needs?
Certainly, conservation and improved efficiency are factors, and although these were brought up at the forum, there was not much discussion on this.
According to a nuclear energy lobby, over half of New Jersey’s electricity is generated in our nukes. But with one plant closing soon, and the others near the end of their useful and safe lives, we will have to fill a gap in our energy production. More nukes is not the answer. In fact, in response to my question about the lack of a national strategy for safe storage of nuclear waste, Izzo said he would not promote the building of new nukes until this problem is resolved. (That may happen when Senator Harry Reid retires, since he’s the one standing in the way of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.) Izzo contended that the nuclear waste problem is a political one, not a technical one, and he is partially right. Today, nuclear waste is stored on-site at the over 100 current and former nukes, and safe transport to Yucca is neither guaranteed nor risk-free.
So what is the alternative?
Solar energy is important and promising, but is not the silver bullet. Susan Tierney, a Senior Advisor at Analysis Group says New Jersey ranks fifth in the nation in solar energy jobs, and sixth per capita in the use of energy from the sun. But she also pointed out that we need better policies to promote solar energy for consumers. (Separately, Senator Bob Smith, Chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, mentioned that the biggest impediment to exploitation of solar energy in New Jersey will be gone in eighteen months.) I wish there had been more discussion about offshore wind, but that too is pretty much on hold until we get a governor who would rather promote renewables than give Exxon Mobil a free pass on pollution.
Natural gas, while cleaner than coal and safer and more economic than nuclear, seems to be the short-term solution. But as Izzo pointed out, replacing a so-called pollution free nuke with the equivalent natural gas capacity exacerbates the carbon problem. So while natural gas may be a short-term but harmful solution, other options must be explored.
Tierney said New Jersey ranks 11th in population, but is only 21st in terms of energy efficiency. Every megawatt of electricity we don’t generate saves a ton of carbon being spewed into the atmosphere. She decried the Christie administration’s withdrawal from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has been a success story both from a financial viewpoint and in terms of carbon footprint in the other participating states.
Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, mentioned that another way to reduce energy generation demand is through voltage optimization on the power grid. Essentially, this is a method to make our grid more efficient by using devices to monitor and control the energy transmission. Of course, another way to make the grid more efficient (not discussed at this forum) is to reduce the use of the grid by generating electricity closer to the consumer through solar and wind energy.
Personally, I would like to see us follow the lead of Germany and other European countries and take nuclear energy off the table. I was disappointed to hear Senator Smith say nuclear deserves a second look. But to go nuke-free, we must ramp up our investment in energy storage technologies and renewable energy. With the patchwork of regulations and the plethora of climate change deniers in the House and Senate, I’m not optimistic.