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Wind turbines in Atlantic City were installed in 2005 as part of a clean-energy initiative undertaken by the Atlantic County Utilities Authority.

This year, Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled an ambitious new plan, calling for 100% clean energy for New Jersey by 2050. Doing so will help head off climate change, Murphy argues, while creating thousands of jobs in a new clean energy industry.

His administration said New Jersey is seeing the impact of rising seas and a warming planet, which scientists have linked to the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases from transportation, power plants and industrialized livestock production (http://bit.ly/2JoKwmJ). 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) has been part of Earth’s atmosphere since before human history, but concentrations have risen steadily since the Industrial Revolution, as societies burned coal, oil and other fossil fuels in ever-increasing amounts.

Murphy’s plan envisions more electric vehicles, and cleaner electricity generation to power them, along with steps toward conservation and efficiency. 

For now, renewable energy makes up about 5% of New Jersey’s power, from solar panels, wind power and a waterfall on the Passaic River in Paterson, the same waterfall that once powered textile mills that helped launch American industry at the close of the 19th century.

Wind power makes up a slight portion of that fraction of energy production, but looks likely to catch up fast, under a plan for a multimillion-dollar wind farm off the coast.

Betting on Wind 

This spring, New Jersey awarded Orsted, a Danish power company, a contract to provide 1,100 megawatts of electricity from wind power, about enough to power 500,000 average homes. Known as Ocean Wind, the project is estimated to be operational by 2024.

“It is the largest, single offshore wind project in the U.S.,” said Kris Ohleth, a senior manager for stakeholder engagement with Orsted. She sees the project becoming a model for future energy development in the nation. 

She also said it is well placed. There is almost always wind blowing along the coast.

Two more contracts are planned in the coming years, each for about the same amount, and Orsted believes with the first phase underway and new infrastructure in place, it will be in position to pick up those contracts, as well.

For many in Southern New Jersey, the five towering wind turbines in Atlantic City are a familiar sight, visible for miles on the bayside of the gambling resort. They were installed in 2005 as part of a clean-energy initiative undertaken by the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, used along with a solar energy system to operate the wastewater treatment plant, with the excess sold to help power the grid.

All are 262 feet tall, with each spinning blade measuring 120 feet.

The turbines planned off the coast will be far larger, according to Ohleth. They will need to be large scale, she said, to bring enough power ashore to meet the demand, as New Jersey loses other sources of power.

Changing Markets

In recent years, both coal-fired and nuclear plants have shut down in New Jersey, including the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Ocean County and the B.L. England plant in Upper Township (http://bit.ly/32J7fS6). 

Opening in 1969, Oyster Creek was once one of the oldest nuclear plants in operation when it was decommissioned by owner Exelon in 2018. That was a decade earlier than planned, reportedly to avoid spending more than $800 million in upgrades to meet environmental regulations.

In Beesley’s Point, the B.L. England plant dates from the early 1960s. It ended operation May 1, after environmentalists blocked a pipeline that would have allowed the plant to transfer to natural gas.

Both are under consideration as sites where offshore wind power could enter the grid, making use of existing infrastructure, Ohleth said. The company is in the process of evaluating possible sites.

Some environmental groups celebrated the closing of the Upper Township power plant, the only generating station in Cape May County.

Two of the turbines burned coal from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and the large deposits in the west, as well as a small amount of old tires. Another burned diesel fuel. Environmental reports state the plant released tons of emissions into the air each year.

In 2006, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the plant to meet the standards of the federal Clean Air Act, which it exceeded for more than a decade. The oldest coal unit shut in 2013, but PJM Interconnective, which operates the electric grid in New Jersey, requested the closure of the plant be delayed until upgrades to the power grid could be made to ensure reliability.

According to PJM officials, the grid draws power from multiple states, moving at the speed of electricity, and there is no way to know where electricity is coming from at any particular time.

Prepping the Grid for Change

“Our generation comes from all over the place,” said Gary Stockbridge, Atlantic City Electric region president. For most people in Cape May County, Atlantic City Electric is the power company that sends bills and checks meters, but doesn’t make any electricity.

“These days, most of the power in South Jersey comes out of Salem. We’re not in the generation side of the business. We don’t own any plants,” Stockbridge said in a recent interview. “We’re a wires business. We’re about the infrastructure.”

Atlantic City Electric, a unit of the energy giant Exelon, has been investing heavily in upgrading its infrastructure (http://bit.ly/31HlkOE), in preparation for larger, more powerful storms in the future.  

“We don’t need to assume it. We’ve seen it, stronger and more frequent storms,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot more volatility in the weather patterns. It’s less about making assumptions and really just adjusting to the reality.”

For the most part, power in the grid flows from east to west. Taking in a considerable amount of power from off the coast will require changes as large-scale wind power starts to come online, he said. 

He expects other power sources to remain in use, to fill the gaps for intermittent renewable energy.

“We’ll have days when the wind’s not blowing. We’ll have days when the sun’s not shining. The grid of the future and how it works is going to be different,” Stockbridge said. While solar systems have slowly proliferated, he said, wind power is set to come online as a major portion of the state’s electric power at once.

Another change could come with electric cars, he said, which could mean new demand for power. According to Stockbridge, the average home’s energy use has remained steady for years. As more and more devices get plugged in, new energy-efficient refrigerators, televisions and other appliances have balanced things out. That could change if thousands of people begin to charge their cars each evening.

If the source of that electricity still pumps carbon into the atmosphere, little is gained, Ohleth said. “If we’re just plugging emissions-free cars into a grid that’s dirty, we’re not making any progress,” she said.

Project Visible From the Beach

The contract area, where the turbines will be installed, starts about 15 miles off the coast (http://bit.ly/2p4cFZz), forming a jagged rectangle off of Cape May and Atlantic counties. 

On a clear day, the turbines will be visible from the beaches of several towns, Ohleth said.

In September, Orsted announced it selected GE Renewable Energy (http://bit.ly/2JmALFv) to supply the turbines. One blade of the Haliade-X 12 megawatt is 351 feet long, according to data from the company. That will mean a spinning radius of more than 721 feet.  

For comparison, the Giant Wheel at Morey’s Piers, which the amusement park said is one of the largest on the East Coast, stands 156 feet tall. Each blade of the planned turbines will be more than twice that length.

The next step will be to gather the needed state and federal permits, a process Ohleth expects to take about two years. The total cost of the project is expected to be about $695 million, she said. 

Proponents of the project, including Murphy, expect the construction and operation to pay off in local jobs. Next year, New Jersey expects to seek proposals for a contract for another 1,100 megawatts of wind power, with a third phase planned after that.

Meanwhile, Orsted is looking at other projects, first in Maryland, then in other coastal states looking at wind energy.

“It really plays well into a lot of things these coastal economies need, including clean energy and jobs,” Ohleth said.

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project. It was originally reported by Bill Barlow for the Cape May County Herald, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.

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