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New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan has put the state on the path to 100% clean energy by 2050, but with 75% of New Jersey’s energy now generated from natural gas, how do we decarbonize the power supply without jeopardizing the reliability of the system that homes and businesses depend on – especially during summer heatwaves and winter deep freezes?

Energy industry leaders, economists, academics and top New Jersey policymakers weighed in on that challenge and other related issues Friday during a daylong NJBIA summit, “Energy & Decarbonization: A New Jersey Business Perspective.” More than 270 people attended the hybrid event both virtually and in-person at the Forsgate Country Club in Monroe.

Elliott Nethercutt, an economist specializing in energy issues at the National Regulatory Research Institute (NRRI), pointed to the blackouts that plagued California during an August 2020 heat wave as a lesson in what happens when ambitious decarbonization goals phase out reliable “dispatchable resources” too quickly, leaving power grid operators without controllable energy derived from fossil fuels during periods of high customer demand.

“System operators cannot make the wind blow faster or make sunshine when it’s cloudy,” Nethercutt said. “I think we can look at the situation in California and apply some of the lessons learned in any state … The replacement capacity has to be online and tested before you take other stuff out of service.”

Nethercutt said if California had not taken so much of its natural gas resources out of service in 2018 and 2019, it is possible that the state could have avoided the power outages it suffered through during the heat wave of 2020 when high energy use crippled the grid.

Decarbonization and reliable power are not opposing forces, but “energy policies do need to be crafted with appropriate flexibility and consideration of other factors,” Nethercutt said.

Prasanna Joshi, Ph.D., senior manager of Corporate Strategic Research, at ExxonMobil’s Research and Engineering facility in Clinton, said that clean, renewable energy is critical to the world’s future, but there is “not a single solution for reaching net-zero ambitions.”

“As we go through these transitions, solutions that are scalable, affordable and reliable today can help us move to the left on the decarbonization,” Joshi said. He mentioned natural gas with CCUS (carbon capture and utilization storage) to reduce emissions, as well as biofuels and hydrogen which will be critical to successfully decarbonizing the heavy transportation sector.

“Hydrogen is one of the solutions as an energy carrier for hard-to-decarbonize sectors like heavy duty transportation, as well as steel and cement. Steel requires a reduction agent and hydrogen can provide that solution as a low emission,” Joshi said.

Collaboration is key across the entire energy technology pipeline for clean energy goals to be achieved, Joshi said. ExxonMobil works with more than 80 universities globally, including Princeton University and Rowan University in New Jersey.

“These collaborations are critical,” Joshi said. “Technologies need to come along and need to be demonstrated, and that’s where the collaboration with national labs, government, as well as venture capitalists become important.”