Environmentalists secure victory as NJ Transit seeks green ideas for new Transitgrid plan
Gov. Phil Murphy joined public and private officials Tuesday morning at a ceremonial groundbreaking on the $595 million Raritan River Bridge replacement project. Bridgewater Courier News
NJ Transit is going back to the drawing board for its natural-gas-powered plant, a move instigated after more than a year of protests from citizens, activists and community leaders in nearby municipalities.
The agency says it will redesign the microgrid, which will provide power to rails in the event of an outage, to use more renewable technology.
The board unanimously approved a $3 million stipend program at Wednesday's board meeting intended to kick-start a search for new ideas, vendors and a consultant to redirect planning for the microgrid, known as Transitgrid.
But the agency stopped short of guaranteeing that the new plan would incorporate 100% renewable energy sources, NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett said, adding that the stipend program will aim to make the project as environmentally friendly as possible.
"The stipend is to get to that 100% renewable goal as quickly as possible, but to the extent that it’s technically feasible," Corbett said. "But we do certainly have to move ahead with the project. This does not preclude the use of gas at this point."
Ed Potosnak, executive director of the state League of Conservation Voters, said he will be vigilant as NJ Transit begins this process toward renewable energy proposals.
"We are optimistic and will carefully be watching the progress, as we know the air permit for the outdated air polluting facility has not been withdrawn. In fact, we urge you to withdraw those permits," Potosnak said. "What I’m calling NJ Transitgrid 2.0 needs to be more than a good-faith effort to develop a clean and renewable alternative. You really need to hit it out of the park."
An outreach event will take place later this month, and it will be followed on Nov. 25 by a Request for Qualifications, which will award up to $1 million to eligible submissions to develop design and construction solutions.
A Request for Proposals to integrate renewable technology will be issued in December 2021 and a contract awarded a year after that.
Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, chairwoman of the NJ Transit board, told the public, "We have heard you loud and clear," and emphasized the importance of being "highly visible and transparent" going forward.
She went on to announce the formation of an ad-hoc sustainability committee that will be made up of three board members and meet "as needed" that will "allow for public engagement and dialogue on the project."
When asked if the federal grant, which was secured for the original Transitgrid project, could be affected by a new plan, Eric Daleo, senior vice president of capital programs at NJ Transit, said officials are in touch with the Federal Transit Administration about this.
"Our intent is to remain faithful to the grant as we reimagine this project," Daleo said.
The upbeat tone of Wednesday's board meeting was in stark contrast to those of recent months. Environmentalists' cries for alternative solutions got louder and more frustrated as months went by with little response from the agency until September's meeting.
"This decision comes on the heels of an unprecedented grassroots movement. Thousands of people have spoken up, signed petitions, emailed, called and sent letters," said Matthew Smith, state director for Food & Water Action. He added that with this initiative, NJ Transit could become an international leader on "clean energy, energy storage and power delivery for transit systems" if successful with the redesign.
Paula Rogovin, a volunteer and member of the Don't Gas the Meadowlands coalition, said, "I am sincerely delighted that we are finally heard" after spending months calling in to board meetings to move the needle on the project.
"We look forward to New Jersey leading the nation in renewable-energy rail," she said. "We are all part of this effort and this victory for our earth."
In a follow-up call with reporters, Corbett said the agency will still pursue the needed permits to keep the project moving.
The original plan
The proposed gas-fired, 140-megawatt power plant in Kearny was originally envisioned to be built on 48 acres by the Hackensack River and would emit 383,000 to 571,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually. The proposal was developed to improve the reliability of electricity for the agency's rail network, which has on average 16 power outages annually and was knocked out for a period of time after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, according to NJ Transit documents.
A microgrid can operate autonomously when the commercial power grid is disrupted, and Transitgrid's power reach was designed to cover 64 miles of rail across parts of the Northeast Corridor and Morris & Essex lines and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.
The plant was estimated to cost about $577 million, of which more than $409 million would have been covered with a federal grant. Four acres would have been devoted to a small solar facility on the property. But the proposal's critics urged agency officials to consider other renewable sources of energy — such as wind, hydropower and hydrogen fuel cell technology — instead of natural gas.
The response at the time was that those alternatives were "infeasible" and incompatible with the project need and purpose, but advocates took issue with that, given advancements in green technology since the plan was developed.
With construction on the microgrid anticipated to begin in spring 2021, the agency received the go-ahead to move forward with its plans after a required environmental study was approved by the Federal Transit Administration in April.
This project could have slid through around that time.
It was during the height of the pandemic and as NJ Transit's board meetings went virtual, dampening the main platform for environmentalists who packed meetings with speakers condemning the harmful effects the project would have on the environment and community.
By April, these monthly meetings began to take place as phone conferences, using a shaky system that at times required public speakers to sign up days in advance and sit on hold for hours before being allowed to speak, and sometimes people couldn't get through to make statements.
As months went by with virtually no response from the board to frustrated advocates' pleas for a meeting to discuss alternative solutions, a crackle on the other end of the line during September's board meeting was Chairwoman Gutierrez-Scaccetti promising a response.
Weeks later, a meeting Friday of more than 30 people, including activists led by the nonprofit Food & Water Action, board members and NJ Transit officials, appeared to lay the groundwork for Wednesday's announcement.
The project has been a conspicuous outlier hanging over Gov. Phil Murphy, whose administration has trumpeted an ambitious clean energy agenda but remained silent on Transitgrid. This time last year, the governor announced his opposition to a separate power plant proposal in the Meadowlands after being criticized for months over his noncommittal stance on the project.
"Governor Murphy is committed to a process that re-envisions the design of the Transit Grid project to prioritize green technology while meeting the resiliency needs of major portions of the NJ TRANSIT system," Michael Zhadanovsky, a Murphy spokesman, wrote in an email. "Governor Murphy is confident that this plan announced by NJ TRANSIT will deliver power that aligns with the administration’s clean energy priorities, while also creating hundreds of union labor jobs."
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.