N.J. coal plant retiring, imperiling pipeline plan while boosting offshore wind

BL England generating station in Marmora, Upper Township, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

BL England generating station in Marmora, Upper Township, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

One of New Jersey’s last coal-burning power plants is set to cease operations Wednesday, according to Upper Township Mayor Rich Palombo. Its demise puts in doubt a controversial natural gas pipeline project, but it creates an opening for the state’s nascent offshore wind industry.

The closure of the B.L. England plant in the Cape May County municipality comes a few months after plans were scuttled to convert it to natural gas, which would have been delivered via a 22-mile pipeline from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County.

South Jersey Gas won approval for the Cape Atlantic Reliability Project in 2017, arguing the pipeline would also improve reliability for 142,000 customers in Atlantic and Cape May counties currently served by one transmission pipeline.

With the plant no longer in need of the fuel, however, a spokeswoman for the utility said South Jersey Gas is exploring other options to get a second natural gas supply line into the region.

“It’s absolutely not going to change our plans to try to provide that redundancy to Atlantic and Cape May County residents,” said Marissa Travaline, the company’s vice president of communications.

Upper Township Mayor Rich Palombo said he was sorry to see some people lose their jobs at the B.L. England plant as it transitions away from around-the-clock staffing. He said the plant was in operation for more than 50 years and at one point employed 100 people.

“It’s down significantly since then,” he said of jobs at the facility.

But the plant could soon be reborn as a site where energy generated by offshore wind turbines could be fed onto the electric grid, creating a whole new set of jobs.

The Danish offshore wind company Orsted has been eyeing both B.L. England and the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey Township, which shut down in September, as part of its plan to build New Jersey’s first offshore wind farm 15 miles off the coast of Atlantic City.

Orsted was one of three companies that submitted bids to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities last year in response to the nation’s largest single-state solicitation of offshore wind projects — part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal to have 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind generation by 2030, or enough to power more than 1 million homes.

A decision on who will be able to develop the first 1,100 megawatts of capacity is expected by the end of June.

The demise of the pipeline project and the transformation of B.L. England from an emitter of fossil fuels to a key link for offshore wind energy would be a dual victory for environmental advocates.

Environmental groups have fiercely opposed the pipeline project because it would cut across the Pinelands, a 1.1 million-acre nature reserve spanning portions of seven counties. They say the pipeline would destroy sensitive ecosystems and create air and water pollution that could contaminate drinking water.

Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey director for Clean Water Action, welcomed the closure of the B.L. England plant and said New Jersey Gas should not be allowed to build a pipeline under its existing plan or any alternative proposal it may come up with.

“We want to get to 100% renewable by 2050, and we can’t do it by having fossil fuel plants come online or stay online,” she said, referring to the Murphy administration’s clean energy goals. “The only way to get there is to not approve any more power plants and pipelines or extend the life of them.”

Murphy, a Democrat, has come under increasing pressure from a coalition of more than 50 environmental groups — united under the banner “Empower NJ” — to put a moratorium on fossil fuel projects in the state, especially as his administration develops a new energy master plan to serve as a roadmap for New Jersey’s energy future.

There are at least eight natural gas pipeline or other projects pending in the state, as well as three natural gas-fired power plants, according to a report Empower NJ published in February. Those numbers include a separate proposal to build a natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands, known as Southern Reliability Link.

New Jersey currently relies heavily on natural gas, with about 40% of the state’s electricity coming from the energy source and about 70% of homes and businesses heated by the fuel.

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