October 2015 Seminar
This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing my experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars our class participates in over the course of one year. For the next several weeks I’ll be posting a blog every Monday up through my graduation in early December 2015.
Here’s what I know: I come home, unlock the front door, step inside, and flick a switch on the wall. The lights turn on. They always do, except for a couple times a year when there’s a storm or maintenance repairs. Not only do the lights turn on, but my heater works, I can cook on my electric stove, water comes out of my tap, and I can access the internet through the computer I’m typing this blog on.
I walk my dog near the substation that is two blocks from my apartment complex, or sometimes cut through the open, grassy corridors where the Titan-like electrical towers stand on their concrete pads, carrying cables the thickness of my wrist from the substation to…well, to wherever it is that those cables go.
That was about the extent of what I knew about energy generation, distribution, regulation and innovation before my Lead NJ seminar on energy this October, held in the stunning LEED Platinum-certified Education Center at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association’s home in Pennington, NJ.
During our two days at the Watershed Center, we learned about our state’s energy infrastructure – how it works, how policies and regulations affect that infrastructure, environmental impacts and exciting opportunities for innovation that could – and in some cases that already do – provide significant societal benefits. We heard from a variety of speakers including representatives from the Rutgers Climate Institute, the NJ Dept. Environmental Protection (DEP), Sustainable Jersey, Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L), the NJ Board of Public Utilities (BPU), PSE&G, the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, and our own classmate Anne-Marie Peracchio, Director of Conservation and Clean Energy Policy at NJ Natural Gas.
There was such a plethora of information shared that I won’t be able to include it all here, so much like the Public Health blog from earlier in this series, I’m going to focus on a few key areas: policy and regulation, innovation, and the “bottom line.”
Policy and Regulation:
JCP&L Area Manager John Anderson, who spent his early years working as an arborist for utility companies, helped connect the dots for us in terms of how our power grid works. I had a general idea of the system, but not of the finer details and implications of an infrastructure that is now pushing 50+ years of age. I found this video to be a humorous but thorough encapsulation of power grid-basics:
What took me entirely by surprise was the relationship between the companies that generate the electricity and those that distribute it.
As consumers, John said, we tend to stop at the company we write our checks to, meaning the distribution companies such as JCP&L, PSE&G, or Atlantic City Electric that supply energy to homes and businesses. We pay far less attention to the transmitters, like PJM Interconnection in New Jersey’s case, and the generators of electricity that transmitters are purchasing from.
On our electric bills, there are breakdowns that show approximately 70% of what we pay goes toward the generation of that electricity, 20% goes to the distribution company, and approximately 3.8% goes to something called the “societal benefit charge.”
I had previously assumed the distribution companies were part of the same supply chain as the generators and transmitters, that all profits went to whomever the parent company was, but really only twenty cents on the dollar goes to the PSE&Gs and JCP&Ls. The “societal benefit charge” is a portion of our bills that is set aside to support “low income programs, nuclear decommissioning, and funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs” under the oversight of the Board of Public Utilities (BPU).
Since public utilities (which include electricity, water, telecommunications, gas and cable) are regulated, they aren’t able to set rates as they wish. Instead, rate-setting is managed by the BPU in a process that mixes a fixed rate that guarantees a certain ROI for the utility companies, and a market rate determined in a public auction each spring. Usually, utilities commit to rates in 2-3 year cycles. Both the blending of rates and the term of agreements help mitigate major fluctuations in the rates for “rate-payers” or consumers.
Why is this important? By understanding how our energy infrastructure and regulatory systems work, we can start to make smarter decisions about maintaining, expanding, or diversifying how energy is being created and disseminated.
Demand for energy is going up. Period. So how do we deal with the demand? Do we build more pipelines? Clear space for more towers and wires? Or do we get smarter about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources that can utilize the existing infrastructure? What policies need to be in place to address these looming issues of reliability and resiliency in our power grid?
Another surprising fact: New Jersey’s narrow Right-of-Way. Now, this is New Jersey, so the concept of “right-of-way” might conjure images of whoever cut you off on the Parkway. In this case, right-of-way refers to the land available for the laying of pipes, wires, poles, towers and other infrastructure needs, including maintenance. In NJ, the corridors of land for infrastructure are very narrow, given both the population density and high property taxes of our state. There are regulations that determine how far gas, water and electrical lines must be from one another for safety, so there is limited space to fit everything in. Right of way also determines, for example, if a homeowner can put up a fence that may affect access to utility poles or other utility infrastructure.
So how do we deal with issues like our narrow right-of-way? Our state’s energy policies can set energy efficiency standards that help reduce the load on the power-grid, including incentives like the existing subsidies for installing Energy Star-rated appliances or weather-proofing homes, or requiring a certain percentage of energy efficient cars be sold – sometimes referred to as “California cars” because they meet that state’s stricter emissions requirements. For example:
- NJ’s Office of Clean Energy has a number of rebate programs for energy efficiency
- PSE&G’s rebate program which gives consumers money back for upgrading to high-efficiency heating and cooling systems
- Smart metering is a growing technology that communicates more quickly with the rest of the grid to notify of fluctuations, outages, or other issues. Right now, distribution companies have to rely on older technology that generally still requires customers notifying them of issues.
[SIDE NOTE: JCP&L has a great energy usage sheet on their website that compares costs of operating different electrical equipment. One of the most surprising to me is that using a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) for an average of 30 hours is over four times cheaper than running a PS4 (that’s a PlayStation 4 for all of us who quit video games once they went 3-D) for the same amount of time – a price difference of $.11/month vs. $.58/month.]
We can also look to policies supporting alternative energy projects for helping to mitigate energy demands like:
- Microgrids: self-generating, contained grids such as those seen at some universities, hospitals and other buildings that can operate independently of the public power grid, if necessary. These are particularly helpful during major weather events or other disasters.
- Solar installation loans, such as PSE&G’s Solar Loan program. New Jersey is currently 6th in the nation for solar installation (we used to be 3rd, partially because of the declining value of SRECs)
- Alternative energy programs like PSE&G’s Solar 4 All, which provides general public benefit. This program was responsible for the small photo-voltaic solar panels that went up on telephone poles throughout PSE&G’s service area over the last few years, providing passive energy to help with supply.
We can also revisit regional policies like Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cooperative effort between adjacent states in the northern and mid-Atlantic regions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector, which New Jersey used to be a part of (Governor Christie pulled NJ out in 2011). RGGI works by setting a regional cap of emissions, if states do better than the cap they can sell their emission allowances through auctions, and the proceeds from those sales are reinvested into other sustainable energy programs that benefit consumers. RGGI is spurring job growth in its member states and the green sector economy.
Smart policies also spur and support the kinds of innovation. Some of the ones we learned about during our seminar included the PSEG Kinsley Landfill Solar installation, set on a capped brownfield landfill that was unable to be developed in any other way.
Experimentation and research for alternative energy sources is what will lead to the innovations that could transform our energy consumption. Dr. Emily A. Carter, Founding Director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, agrees: “If it could work, I think we should do it.”
Dr. Carter‘s background in – get ready for it – quantum mechanics, mechanical and aerospace engineering, applied and computational mathematics, and chemistry, with her current research focused on “enabling discovery and design of molecules and materials for sustainable energy, including converting sunlight to electricity and fuels, providing clean electricity from solid oxide fuel cells, clean and efficient combustion of biofuels, and optimizing lightweight metal alloys for fuel-efficient vehicles and fusion reactor walls,” uniquely positions her as the head of the cross-discipline innovation laboratory.
She is also uniquely positioned to draw in the kinds of researchers who can help our world to leap forward with new technologies that can greatly impact the sustainability of our energy consumption and the health of our people and planet, ranging from nuclear fission and fusion to reverse combustion to waste heat recovery.
One of the goals of the Center is to provide “succinct yet substantive information to policymakers, educators, students, and other citizens” in the form of short publications known as “Distillates” on the Center’s website. The Distillates page is still in its early stages, but given the way Dr. Carter was able to explain some of the groundbreaking research being conducted at the Center, I have high hopes for the readability of these publications and the road maps they may provide to policymakers.
So, what’s the bottom line for us – the rate-payers/consumers/individuals/businesses/beneficiaries of flipping a switch to turn on the lights?
- Understand the supply chain – where does the energy come from and are there innovations or policies we can put in place to stabilize the rising demand for energy in order to maintain both reliability and resiliency?
- Energy efficiency – it really works, and it’s the most readily available technology we can implement. Replace those light bulbs, weather proof your home, when possible upgrade to higher efficiency appliances, reduce the amount of hours we’re in front of the PS4 (it’ll benefit more than just our electric bills).
- The less we need to expand our energy infrastructure (in the form of wires and pipes and towers) the more we can reduce our environmental impact, both during the building phase and later, when those open corridors will require maintenance and clearing.
- For any new developments/homeowners: don’t plant trees directly underneath power lines – they’ll just have to be cut later.
- Innovations in energy supply will have tremendous health and societal benefits down the line as emission and fossil fuel usage can be reduced.
As leaders, I think it’s essential for us to try to go deeper – to understand the many facets of the systems we sometimes take for granted, and to help others understand the complexities inherent in those systems. I know I have a new appreciation for the beauty of human ingenuity on display in our energy infrastructure, and a greater understanding of the balance between preserving and protecting our lands with the great privilege of being able to flip a switch and have the lights come on.
Image: NASA/NOAA, United States from space: This image is a composite of data taken by the VIIRS instrument aboard the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012.
Image: Solar panels on telephone poles in South Brunswick: By Mr. Matté (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image: JET (Joint European Torus) tokamak at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy
Kacy O’Brien is the Program Manager at Creative New Jersey, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture, in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.
This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing Kacy’s experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars her class participates in over the course of one year. Topics range from policy to the economy, to education, arts and culture, energy, criminal justice and healthcare, with a focus on New Jersey’s current state and its future. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Lead NJ, The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Creative New Jersey, their staffs, and/or any/all contributors to this site. For corrections or questions, please email Kacy at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kacy gratefully acknowledges Lead NJ and The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for their support of her participation in the 2015 Lead NJ program.