A micro-grid opportunity at environmental justice

Several years ago the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) Executive Director, Andrew Kricun, P.E., envisioned a bold experiment to meet several objectives in one action. This one action (to be accurate, a series of actions) would increase the resiliency of the waste water treatment plant, reduce the impact of the Covanta Incinerator on the water table and air, and create a resilient energy source for vital infrastructure sites in the Waterfront South and South Camden community. When I first heard about this, I was amazed at the ingenuity of this engineer, to find a way to achieve several objectives at the same time, and NOT raise rates on the customers of his utility. He was not able to complete his vision, but it has now got new life, and like many things in Camden, it may very well miss the mark of the original vision, and it very well may not be targeted to benefit the community of South Camden, as it should be.

Covanta is a trash-to-steam incinerator to which the overwhelming majority of non-recyclable trash comes from all over Camden County. This incinerator generates tremendous amounts of toxins that are spewed into the air and carried all over South Camden and into the neighboring communities like Collingswood, Gloucester City and beyond. The emissions have been judged below the maximum allowable under environmental regulations on the state and federal level. Community environmental activities have charged that these maximum levels are not sufficient to protect the health of the people living in the impacted communities. On top of the emissions, the plant draws water from the ground table that it needs for its operations.

Here is where the original micro-grid plan comes in. The CCMUA has been slowly moving toward being completely off the energy grid for its energy needs. It has installed solar panels over its treatment pools, has worked for increased efficiency in its energy use, and now wants to tap into the electricity generated by the steam generated by Covanta in burning the county’s trash can create electricity. This electricity would be sent to the CCMUA plant, meeting its energy needs, and more. In return, CCMUA would pay Covanta a significant percentage MORE than what PSE&G pays for Covanta’s electricity, but less than what CCMUA pays PSE&G currently. So, Covanta makes more money in this plan by selling its energy to CCMUA and CCMUA saves money by purchasing electricity from Covanta at a lower rate than is typically paid to PSE&G. In addition, CCMUA will send brown water to Covanta for their operations, thus eliminating Covanta’s need to draw on the local aquifer, benefitting all people in Southern New Jersey.

This part of the plan between Covanta and CCMUA seems like a great plan on its own, for both parties. But Andy realized that the energy generated by Covanta is actually more than CCMUA needs, so he envisioned creating a micro-grid that would supply power, power that is cheaper than currently available, to the hospitals, police stations, government offices, public schools and other public assets. Not only would these community assets be more resilient in the event of a catastrophic storm like Hurricane Sandy, but the cost of electric would be significantly cheaper, freeing up funds for other benefits to the community.

In order to create this micro-grid, electric lines would have to be run underground. Andy saw this as an opportunity to address yet another infrastructure problem in Camden: the sewer. The biggest cost to replacing the 100+ year old sewer, operating at 40% capacity, thus leading to the flooding of streets and parks during a heavy rain event, is opening up the streets. Well, if we have to open up the streets to create the proposed micro-grid, why not replace the sewer pipe along the way?

Finally, with all the money gained by selling its electricity to CCMUA, Covanta committed itself to building a “baghouse” collection system to capture most (but not all) of the toxins released during its operations.

This is a long explanation, lacking lots of the technical details, but I hope you get the sense of how ingenious this plan was. Andy Kricun is no longer at CCMUA, but the project continues, and right now is in a bit of a limbo. The micro-grid that was to benefit public infrastructure, is now proposed to benefit the for-profit companies in Waterfront South, most of which are polluting industries. There is discussion of two community benefit agreements. The first is between Covanta and the neighborhoods of Waterfront South and Morgan Village as a condition for participating in the micro-grid project. The second is with the manager of the micro-grid. The bottom line is that this project stands to benefit the community significantly, and we need to make sure those benefits are realized.

The community has stood up to demand some benefit for hosting these polluting sites in their neighborhood. CFET has been standing right with them. The community has challenged the county and city representatives, as well as those of Covanta, to pursue a project with real community benefit. We have Covanta on record committing to the “baghouse” system EVEN IF the micro-grid project falls through!

Some have challenged the whole project because it rests on the premise that Covanta’s “aging” operation will stay in place. Some want to push the county to shut down Covanta. Others have advocated for the micro-grid as a way to create benefit from the siting of Covanta in Camden. Why not do both? Why not pursue the community benefit agreement from the micro-grid project AND advocate for the eventual removal of Covanta from our neighborhood? The recent passage of S 232 in the New Jersey legislature, a bill that ensures that cumulative impact of polluting industries be considered for all future siting of these industries, is a triumph for those who have fought for communities like Waterfront South. This will benefit the community in the long run; and so can the micro-grid, if we can push our political leaders to prioritize the citizens and their health over the profits of private industry.

There is a lot to discuss. You can read our neighbor Mike Morgan’s take on this issue here.  I invite you to be part of the discussion and activism in the city.

I started this by noting Andy Kricun’s role in a vision for a resilient energy source for vital infrastructure in the city of Camden. The details of this vision are certainly open for healthy and constructive debate, but the idea of finding win-win-wins that promote multiple objectives is a hallmark of Andy’s career. He will be honored at Pyne Point Park on Thursday, September 24th from 4:30 – 6:30PM.  Throughout his career at CCMUA he has done so many great things for the city of Camden; this microgrid idea was simply the latest one!

We must be creative, honest and direct in pursuing justice, environmental or otherwise. The discussion around the micro-grid is an opportunity to engage in just that: the pursuit of justice.


Mark Doorley, Ph.D.

Chair, Board of Trustees

The Center for Environmental Transformation