At the Intersolar Summit New Jersey 2014 in Edison on March 20, Lyle K. Rawlings, vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association (MSEIA), reeled off a long list of solar accomplishments that have taken place in New Jersey, from the invention of the first solar cell and the first thin-film solar cell to the first solar conference and the first solar cell production company.

NJ Free Intersolar Solar EnergyRawlings also announced a new opportunity for New Jersey to make solar history, which if achieved would be the crowning glory of that list: for New Jersey to produce 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. The goal was established by NJ FREE (New Jersey For Renewable Energy and Efficiency), a broad-based coalition of environmental, industry, professional, civic and faith-based organizations, which Rawlings described as the largest state coalition ever assembled in support of an issue. “We are building an army,” he said, “and we won’t stop until it happens.”

While many don’t believe it will be possible to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables by the end of the first half of the 21st century, the goal as eminently doable, he said. In order to reach 80 percent by 2050, it will be necessary to install an average of 425 megawatts per year through 2050, which is less than the 463 megawatts installed in New Jersey in 2012 alone. Moreover, the impetus toward renewable power is being propelled by a number of broader issues. PJM, the regional transmission organization (RTO) that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states, including New Jersey, and the District of Columbia, noted in a recent report that 20 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants serving the region are at high risk of retirement due to new emissions regulations and that the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey Township, the nation’s oldest, is slated for retirement at the end of 2019. These looming losses in generating capacity are forcing a decision on New Jersey’s energy future. “We are at a crossroads,” Rawlings said. “Something has to replace these sources of energy.” And, he noted, if we care about greenhouse gas emissions, it isn’t likely to be natural gas, which has a higher greenhouse gas footprint than originally thought due to the release of methane into the atmosphere from leaks that occur during the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process. Another impetus, Rawlings said, has been the power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy, which highlighted the fragility of the grid and the need to develop highly distributed, uninterruptible sources of energy, which can be provided through the use of by solar in combination with battery storage.

In posing the question of whether the NJ FREE goal is feasible, Rawlings cited the examples of the Nordic countries, which as a group reached 63 percent renewable electricity in 2012, and Germany, whose goal is 80 percent renewable electricity by 2050 and which is already eight or nine years ahead of schedule, achieving 26 percent renewable electricity in the first half of 2012. At times, Germany is now getting as much as 43 percent of its power from renewable sources – and this without a strong solar resource (New Jersey’s solar resource is roughly 38 percent better than Germany’s), he said. Moreover, Germany is achieving this without the grid instability that is a risk with intermittent sources of power such as solar. Indeed, the reliability of Germany’s grid — even with its heavy dependence on intermittent sources of energy — far exceeds that of the United States. In 2011, German set a new record low for the System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI), a commonly used reliability indicator. At below 15, it was the lowest in Europe and less than half as high as most other European countries. By contrast, the nationwide SAIDI in the United States for the same year was 244. Moreover, Germany achieved this through clever grid management practices, rather than major investments in infrastructure or storage, he noted.

Rawlings’ remarks were echoed by those of N.J. Assemblyman Upendra J. Chivukula, who represents New Jersey’s 17th District, in the closing remarks of the summit. Chivukula, who has been called New Jersey’s “Mr. Energy” for his role in crafting the innovative legislation that propelled New Jersey to second place in solar capacity, said: “There will always be naysayers out there, but we have to believe we can accomplish this. … There are no alternatives.”

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