NJ Transit Plans to Proceed with Gas Plant Despite Gov. Murphy Request

This article was written for the Lackawanna Coalition by Ken Dolsky of the Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition, which has been leading the effort to ensure that any new NJ Transit projects use clean, renewable energy as much as possible, in compliance with our state’s new environmental-justice legislation.  The views expressed are specifically those of the DGTM Coalition; the Lackawanna Coalition is in alliance with their goals.

NJ TRANSIT plans to build its own power plant in Kearny in order to power selected trains when it loses commercial power, as happened for several days after Hurricane Sandy.  NJT has $512M in grant money to build this system.  Its original plan was to build a 140MW gas plant.  However, in 2020 Governor Murphy directed NJT to redesign the project primarily using renewable energy.  NJT spent 2020 “reimagining” the framework for the project and issued an RFP at the end of 2021, which was expected to follow the Governor’s direction.  Instead, NJT’s RFP is only requesting a gas plant and appears to have never intended to follow the Governor’s directions.

The RFP requests proposals that utilize fossil fuels now along with an undefined transition to be “carbon neutral” by 2050.  The RFP is completely silent as to when this transition would occur or even start.  Even assuming this is to be a transition to clean renewable energy, this approach will allow the plant to burn gas for many years.

Unlike its specific design of a gas-based solution, the RFP left the design and specifics of a solar/storage solution completely up to the bidders.  It provides no design, no specs, no land, no support for acquiring land and no support for leasing terms and conditions for solar, yet claims to be unbiased.  Clearly, NJT stacked the deck in favor of gas.

NJT is not even asking for an initial plan to use renewable energy, as it is likely afraid the renewable energy proposals will be more cost effective than the gas plant.  If NJT thinks that solar/storage won’t be viable for its immediate needs, why not solicit full solution bids and be able to prove its premise?  The Don’t Gas the Meadowlands (DGTM) Coalition has worked with solar experts and evaluated space for solar near the project and concluded that solar is completely feasible now and will very likely have better long-term financial benefits over a gas plant.  All of this information was provided to NJT during 2019 and 2020.

NJT is also hiding behind the Energy Master Plan target date of 2050 to fulfill its commitment to using renewable energy.  No NJT document or statement prior to the RFP ever said this could wait until 2050.

NJT’s gas plant will increase NJ GHG emissions by 600,000 million metric tons (MMT) per year, so transitioning to truly renewable energy will only reduce the increase in emissions this plant will have caused.  This will do nothing to reduce GHGs by 80% by 2050 as described in the EMP.

There is no reference in the RFP of the need to comply with NJ’s Environmental Justice (EJ) law.  Building what would be the 5th fossil fuel power plant in one of the most polluted communities in the country flies in the face of New Jersey’s landmark EJ legislation, S232, which was passed to protect vulnerable residents from facilities such as this.

NJT is spending its one time grant on the wrong technology that will produce the worst results in terms of air quality/health, climate change and financial benefits for NJT. They are purchasing a dead end technology that will decrease in value vs. a technology that will increase in value.

The DGTM Coalition is asking NJT for a clear and compelling explanation for excluding a renewable energy proposal, including an analysis that will allow NJT to compare the long-term financial benefits and costs of owning a gas plant versus owning a renewable energy plant.  Assuming no receipt of such an explanation, we are demanding that the RFP require bids on renewable-energy solutions that can be implemented now in order to provide this comparison.  At the same time we are asking Governor Murphy to reiterate his 2020 demand for a solution that will maximize the use of renewable energy.

Weather Experts Contradict NJT

NJ Transit suffered serious damage to its passenger cars and locomotives when Hurricane Sandy flooded storage yards at Kearny in the Jersey Meadows and at Hoboken.  Whether the decision to move equipment to those yards in advance of the storm was a wise one has become a front-page controversy.  NJT Executive Director James Weinstein has steadfastly held that the decision was a wise one, based on the weather models and forecasts available to the railroad—but according to reporting by Stephen Stirling on Dec. 12 in the Star-Ledger, most advice from scores of forecasts and computer models showed that the Kearny yard was far more likely to flood than the 10-20% chance that NJT has said forecasts predicted.  Some forecasters said that NJT never contacted them for advice on interpreting the forecasts; moreover, had NJT done so, they would have advised NJT as early as Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, that flooding in the Kearny yards was a near certainty.  Controversy over whether NJT could have made a better decision on storing its equipment, and whether the railroad would have had time to execute moving the rolling stock to higher ground, continues to reverberate.  Complicating the railroad’s planning was the history of previous storms: the Hoboken and Kearny yards had never flooded, whereas other areas had been subject to flooding from rising rivers, notably the Trenton station area, which might have stranded equipment across the Delaware in the railroad’s Morrisville, Pennsylvania, yard.  Fearful of this, NJT apparently decided to move equipment out of that facility into the Kearny yard, safe from river flooding but unfortunately subject to flooding from the ocean storm surge that caused great damage in this storm.

Did NJT Ignore Flood Warnings?

Since Superstorm Sandy struck more than 3 weeks ago, NJ Transit has been working to restore normal service.  NJT was the hardest-hit suburban rail system in the Northeast; other New York-area systems, such as Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, quickly restored near-normal service, but NJT continued to struggle with reduced schedules and one line still completely suspended.  Most attention has been focused on damage to track: flooding in the Amtrak Hudson River tunnels used by NJT, flooding of electrical substations, flooding of the Hoboken terminal area, storm surge damage to the North Jersey Coast line, and trees down on all lines—but what about the railroad’s passenger cars and locomotives?

Early reports that there was massive damage from flooding were quickly countered by denials from NJT and statements that the system “has plenty of equipment”.  Media reports hinting that NJT did not adequately prepare for the storm began with a Reuters “exclusive” about November 18; as of Nov. 22, they continue to reverberate in print, broadcast, and electronic media.  Reuters reporters Janet Roberts, Ryan McNeill, and Robin Respaut reported that there is indeed massive damage to NJT rolling stock; moreover, they say, the damage resulted largely from bad decisions by NJT in the hours before the storm struck: moving much equipment to the modern storage and maintenance facility that NJT has built in the Jersey Meadows at Kearny, in a location which had never flooded in history, but which computer models apparently predicted was likely to flood when the hurricane hit.  Other rail operators, including the New York subway system, used the same prediction to evacuate their equipment to high ground before the storm surge hit the New York harbor area, and emerged with little or no damage to rolling stock—and rapid restoration of service.

Equipment was also moved to the Hoboken yards, which also flooded, according to Reuters, which also noted that among the damaged equipment were 9 brand-new “dual-mode” electric/diesel locomotives planned for single-seat service from diesel lines into Manhattan, and 84 recently-acquired “multilevel” passenger cars; a total value of $384 million was cited.  Other sources reported damage to additional equipment, including 124 single-level locomotive-hauled coaches, 53 electric multiple-unit (Arrow) cars, and 54 locomotives: 43 diesel-only and 11 electric-only.  Reuters also cited sources to the effect that an internal probe was in progress regarding the railroad’s response to the hurricane threat, although other sources denied this or said it was routine following a major event such as Sandy.

The final analysis will involve a determination of just what information was available, how accurate it turned out to be, and whether NJT believed the information and took appropriate action.  The Reuters story suggests that the information was available, proved accurate, but that NJT refused to believe that flooding that had never happened before could in fact occur. NJT officials insist that the equipment was where it “should be” during the storm.