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Extreme hurricanes highlight concerns about climate change

By Michele S. Byers

With two months to go, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has made history as one of the most active and destructive on record. Four major hurricanes – Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria – caused catastrophic impacts to the U.S. mainland and Caribbean islands, and there could be more. The warm ocean waters that spawn tropical cyclones will not cool down for some time.

This cluster of hurricanes does not come as a surprise to climate scientists, who have predicted that man-made changes to the Earth’s climate are accelerating the conditions that produce powerful storms.

While the storms in themselves are not definitive evidence of climate change and scientists look at long-term trends to validate their theories, the increased frequency and intensity of these recent storms is exactly what is predicted and expected of a warming climate.

We recently marked national Clean Energy Week, which was a great time to consider the connection between energy consumption and the resulting pollution that creates heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, leading to warmer oceans.

The goal of Clean Energy Week is to raise awareness of the issues and the potential for renewable energy like wind and solar to replace fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases.

At a Rutgers University-sponsored conference on climate change on Sept. 27, scientists and decision makers discussed New Jersey’s progress in preparing for climate change and the critical role states can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In conjunction with Clean Energy Week, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and ReThink Energy NJ released a new report,  “A Clean Energy Pathway for New Jersey,” detailing how this state we’re in can achieve a 50 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions coming from New Jersey electric generating plants by 2030.

That goal is key in meeting targets set by the state’s Global Warming Response Act, which calls for an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including electricity and transportation, by 2050.

The Clean Energy Pathway report relies on three strategies to achieve affordable emission reductions: greater energy efficiency, a continuation of New Jersey’s historic growth in solar energy, and a new focus on offshore wind power.

As of 2015, solar and wind accounted for only 4 percent of New Jersey’s energy mix, currently dominated by natural gas and nuclear energy. By following the Clean Energy Pathway, the state could have a third of its power generation needs met by in-state renewable energy by 2030.

According to the report, increased energy efficiency would reduce New Jersey’s total need for electricity generation 15 percent by 2030.

The proposed Clean Energy Pathway mix in 2030 – which includes 17 percent offshore wind, 14 percent solar, 31 percent natural gas and 36 percent nuclear – would cost about the same as the status quo. But the new energy mix would lead to a 50 percent reduction in harmful emissions, allowing New Jersey to avoid significant public health and environmental costs.

“The proposed expansion of renewable energy sources is projected to moderately increase electricity generation costs, but these costs would be offset by significant efficiency savings such that ratepayers would pay slightly less,” the report stated. “When factoring in the public health and environmental costs of carbon, the savings from the Clean Energy Pathway are even higher. By adopting sensible policies, New Jersey can affordably achieve sustainable emissions reductions.”

ReThink Energy NJ isn’t the only group reaching this conclusion.

According to a new report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, clean energy is quickly approaching the “tipping point” at which it becomes cheaper than fossil fuels. At a recent presentation in London, the group said technology is cutting the costs of wind and solar installations, making it inevitable that clean energy will replace fossil fuels in many places around the world.

According to Bloomberg, the first tipping point will come when the cost to build new wind and solar power generating facilities becomes lower than building new power plants that use natural gas and coal. The second tipping point will come when it is more costly to operate existing coal and gas plants than to get power from wind and solar.

Clearly, the economic momentum is on the side of clean energy. New Jersey now has an achievable and affordable pathway to get there, and it is time to move ahead quickly.

The public health and environmental costs of cleaning up and restoring communities devastated by extreme storms are not affordable or sustainable. It is time for New Jersey’s elected leaders to put this state we’re in firmly on the path to clean energy. As Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria have shown, we have no time to lose.

For more information about the proposed Clean Energy Pathway, go to http://rethinkenergynj.org/ cleanenergypathway/

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

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