In the coming years, New Jersey will need to make some difficult choices about its electricity sources.
The state’s electricity demand is expected to grow by at least 14 percent over the next decade. Efficiency measures can mitigate this demand growth, but additional power generation facilities will also be necessary— both to satisfy this increased demand and to replace power from dirty or unsafe plants as they are retired.
Generating power by using fossil fuels or nuclear power imposes unbearable costs on our environment, our health, and our economy. Instead of increasing our dependence on dangerous, polluting sources such as coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, the state must tap into clean, sustainable energy resources such as wind power.
Global warming, caused by the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, is the most severe impact of our current energy path. If emissions of greenhouse gases are not dramatically curtailed, life in New Jersey will be significantly altered within the next century.
- Within the next 50 years, the ocean will rise one to four feet along the Atlantic coast. A 2.3-foot rise in ocean levels would threaten up to 433 square miles of coastal land in New Jersey with increased flooding. The impacts of global warming are likely to be most noticeable along the shore, through lost shoreline, saltwater intrusion in fresh water supplies, an increase in extreme weather events like storms and flooding, and resulting damage to coastal properties.
- Global warming will cause significant disruption of ecosystems and thus wildlife habitats. Changing vegetation will alter wildlife population size, density, and behavior. Shifts in habitat may force as many as 31 species of birds to change their ranges to exclude New Jersey.
- Warming is already occurring: temperatures in the past century have risen by an average of one degree.
- In 2001, New Jersey’s coal, oil, and gas-fired power plants released an estimated 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—emissions equivalent to those from half of the cars on New Jersey’s roads.
Air and Water Pollution
Fossil fuels burned to produce electricity also contribute to New Jersey’s and the region’s air and water pollution problems, threatening the health of residents and impacting our quality of life.
- During 2003, the eight-hour health standard for ground-level ozone (“smog”) was exceeded 79 times in New Jersey, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated all of New Jersey as violating health standards for ozone. Ground-level ozone, which is partially caused by emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), can lead to asthma, bronchitis, increased susceptibility to bacterial infections and other respiratory problems.
- Acid rain, the result of NOx and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, kills forests and damages aquatic ecosystems. In much of New Jersey, 10 to 20 percent of surface waters are acidic due to acid rain. Over 90 percent of the streams in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens are chronically acidic (the highest rate in the nation), killing resident trout.
- Mercury from coal-fired power plants has contaminated the state’s lakes and streams, putting children at risk of nuerological damage and prompting a statewide advisory on fish consumption.
Nuclear power plants are another environmental crisis in the making. New Jersey’s aging plants generate tons of radioactive waste that will remain lethal for centuries.
- Exposure to radiation from nuclear waste can cause serious health problems, including cancer, developmental disorders, hereditary disease, accelerated aging, and immune system damage.
- New Jersey’s four nuclear power plants have generated and currently store 1,688 metric tons of spent fuel. These facilities have no safe storage options for their waste and aging equipment at the plants increases the odds of an accident.
- An accident involving radioactive material—whether due to mishandling, equipment fatigue or a terrorist act—could endanger thousands of people, including the growing population of Ocean and Salem counties and the greater Philadelphia metro area.
- Evacuation plans are woefully inadequate.
Wildlife and Habitat Destruction
Statistics about wildlife deaths related to different energy sources indicate that wind power, a renewable energy source, has a more modest impact on wildlife and habitat than do coal, natural gas, or nuclear power.
- Mining for coal or for uranium destroys vast areas of habitat. A single mine can strip up to ten square miles, disrupting individual animals and in some cases entire species. Coal mining in Tennessee threatens the habitat of the Cerulean warbler, a species that is in precipitous decline.
- Nuclear power plants disrupt aquatic habitat. New Jersey’s Salem Nuclear Generating Station draws water from the Delaware River for cooling purposes, killing 3 billion fish annually.
- One study of wind turbines indicates an average of 2.3 avian fatalities at each turbine each year, for a total of 10,000 to 40,000 birds killed per year nationwide. As more wind farms are erected in the United States, new research continues to discover ways to design and site these facilities to minimize wildlife disruption from wind farms.
Wind: The Least Damaging Choice
Wind has great potential for generating electricity that we have only begun to tap. While concerns about wind power’s impacts on vistas and birds and more recently on bats have slowed its development, the impacts are minor when compared to the harm caused by the mining and burning of coal and natural gas, or by nuclear power. Wind power does not contribute to global warming, and produces no air pollution or wastes. For these reasons, wind power, in combination with energy efficiency measures, constitutes one of the few sources with which to reasonably meet New Jersey’s growing electricity demand. Any specific wind project, whether onshore or offshore, will have impacts. A permitting process should be put in place to examine impacts for ecological significance. An appropriate wind project permitting process will allow decision makers and the public to weigh the local impacts of a wind development against the broader effects of alternative power sources. The review process for any wind facility in New Jersey should include the following:
- Opportunities for participation from all involved constituencies.
- A comparison to potential impacts of traditional electricity production options, to ensure that the consequences of coal, natural gas, or nuclear power are considered.
- Clear decision criteria established in advance: what factors will be considered, what requirements a facility must meet regarding environmental and public health impacts, and how those impacts will be evaluated (site studies, computer modeling, or other methods).
- Independent review of the developer’s plans by technical experts who can effectively assess impacts of the development.
- A timeline for the permitting process including interim steps and decision points, so that developers can plan their project and the public can be made aware of opportunities for comment.
- Post-construction monitoring of the turbines.
Because few wind power facilities have been constructed in coastal areas of the East Coast of the United States and none yet offshore, there is some uncertainty about the potential impacts of such an installation. No permitting process will be able to provide this data. Rather, the information will come from the first few projects as they are built and begin operating. In light of the relative environmental consequences of the state’s current and future energy supply options, New Jersey should encourage one or more wind facilities as test cases, and then apply the data gathered from those developments to the review of future proposals.