Lawmakers advance bill to study energy from waves and tides
The bill would require wave and tidal energy to be part of New Jersey's energy master plan. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
When it comes to renewable energy, solar power and wind turbines hog all the headlines. But with 130 miles of coastline in New Jersey, one lawmaker wants the state to explore how waves and tides could reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.
Thursday, legislators advanced Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak’s bill that would require the state to study ocean energy potential and set goals in wave and tidal energy generation.
“Wind and solar is not going to be the savior, period. There has to be other energy sources that will fill some of these gaps,” said Karabinchak (D-Middlesex). “If it’s nighttime, that solar farm isn’t doing a thing. If the wind slows down on these farms, there has to be something else, some other energy source, that will fill that gap.”
The Assembly’s infrastructure and natural resources committee, which Karabinchak chairs, unanimously agreed to advance the bill, which would also require the state to add wave and tidal energy to its energy master plan and authorize pilot projects to test their efficacy.
The approval came despite objections from an advocate for commercial fisheries, who warned the “industrialization of our ocean” — already underway with offshore wind projects — will obliterate fishing grounds.
“We will not be able to fish in these locations,” said Scot C. Mackey, who represented the Garden State Seafood Association.
Four of the mid-Atlantic region’s top six commercial fishing ports are in New Jersey, where in 2018 commercial fisheries collected 190 million pounds of finfish and shellfish, worth $170 million, according to the association.
Mackey told legislators that wind energy’s financial impact on fisheries remains unknown, four years after the state first committed to offshore wind turbines and with companies already pledging billions of dollars to build them. Wave and tidal energy projects could further alter the ecosystem, Mackey said.
He urged legislators to hold off on pilot projects until more research exists showing wave and tidal energy investments are worthy.
“It’s a step too far for us,” Mackey said.
Karabinchak countered that research is one of the main goals of his bill.
“This is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Assemblyman Don Guardian (R-Atlantic), a committee member, served as mayor until 2018 in Atlantic City, where Karabinchak hopes to pilot a wave energy project on the Steel Pier. He echoed Karabinchak’s defense of the bill, warning against conflating the impact of wind turbines and wave energy, which captures the kinetic energy of waves through buoys or similar floating devices.
“It’s a clean source of energy that I think provides the least negative impact on our environment, and it’s free energy, once you have the capital costs,” Guardian said. “I think it would be foolish for New Jersey not to be leading the nation and the world in at least studying if this is practical.”
Karabinchak introduced his bill last week, six months after he convened a legislative public hearing on wave energy. On Tuesday, he attended a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly hosted by the Ocean Stewardship Coalition to hear what other countries are doing on ocean energy.
“I believe this is going to be the future,” he said Thursday.
The bill has at least one ardent supporter — the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.
“We think New Jersey could be a pioneer in exploring and evaluating wave energy,” said Rebecca Hilbert, the league’s senior policy manager. “We do support this bill strongly.”
Gov. Phil Murphy included $500,000 in the current state budget to pilot a wave energy project in New Jersey, Karabinchak said. The Swedish company Eco Wave Power is drafting a letter of intent to build the Steel Pier project, he added.
Promising, but still needs study
Scientists differ on whether wave and tidal energies can help New Jersey reach its goal of becoming a 100% clean-energy state by 2050.
Muhammad Hajj of Stevens Institute of Technology said both are newer technologies than solar and wind power and consequently cost more and require further testing for the technology to “mature” enough to effectively compete with wind and solar.
“I think it has to be a part of renewable energy plan for coastal states,” said Hajj, who chairs the school’s department of civil, environmental and ocean engineering. “But it will take time to realize it. It’s not something that you could design, go put in the water, and start generating power now.”
In some ways, wave and tidal energies hold more promise than wind and solar, Hajj added.
Wave energy specifically is more consistent than wind or solar and has a higher energy density, meaning it’s one of the most concentrated forms of renewable energy, Hajj said.
At the same time, buoys powered by waves are more compact and take up less space than solar panel fields and wind turbines, he said.
Tidal energy derives power from the rise and fall of tides through dams, underwater turbines, generators, and such devices, which can be sizeable too.
But anything in the ocean is susceptible to its salinity, so corrosion is a challenge for ocean-based energies, Hajj added.
“The sea environment is a very harsh environment,” he said.
And waves can be vastly different, depending on the weather, global location, and distance from the shoreline, which is why a dominant design hasn’t emerged, Hajj said.
“Wave power needs a little bit more research, a little bit more investing, and a little bit more time to come up with innovations to design better wave power generation systems,” he said.
New Jersey isn’t the best candidate for tidal energy, because the state only has about a four-foot tidal range, said Stewart Farrell, director of the Stockton University Coastal Research Center. The tidal range is much higher in states like Maine, with an 18-foot tidal range, or Alaska, with up to 40 feet.
Farrell urged the state to stick with what works.
“In terms of clean, reliable, we-know-how-to-do-it power, it’s either going to be something like natural gas, which is a much smaller carbon footprint than coal, or nuclear,” he said.
It also will be wind, though, if the governor has his way.
New Jersey already has a few wind turbines off the coast, with Murphy repeatedly ramping up his goals for the Garden State to embrace wind energy.
In 2019, he set a goal for New Jersey to have 7,500 megawatts of power from wind by 2035, up from his previous goal of 3,500 megawatts by 2030.
On Wednesday, he upped the goal again, issuing an executive order that declared New Jersey’s offshore wind turbines should generate 11,000 megawatts by 2040. He also directed the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to study whether the state can boost that goal even further.
State officials on Thursday also announced they approved new research projects to study how offshore wind will impact New Jersey’s recreational fishing industry. Researchers will track fish and whale movements and evaluate offshore wind infrastructure as potential platforms for longterm environmental and ecological monitoring.
The research will be paid for through a $26 million state fund initially seeded by two offshore wind developers.
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