An analysis of the potential for gases leaking from landfills and wastewater sludge to become a source of renewable energy – the work of Green Team interns at the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies – is drawing attention for its future potential for use in home heating.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Sustainability, is seen as a model for other states and countries assessing the feasibility of clean energy alternatives, specifically not wasting the energy that’s naturally created by waste.
“It’s pretty ironic,” says Justin Bates ’20, a member of the Green Team sponsored by the New Jersey Resources subsidiary New Jersey Natural Gas. “You think about clean energy coming from solar or wind, but you wouldn’t expect that ‘dirty’ energy sources coming from a landfill or a wastewater treatment [plant] can be renewable and clean.”
It’s the type of “outside the box” thinking that the Green Teams are known for, says Amy Tuininga, director of the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies based at Montclair State University. “Our undergraduates are bright, innovative and ready to apply what they learn in class to real-world issues. They have lots of energy.”
For the past five years, the student internship program has undertaken noteworthy research and community projects, including climate change in New Jersey and energy and water studies globally. It has also been a key platform for launching participating students into internships, green jobs and graduate study.
For the 2019 New Jersey Natural Gas Green Team, it’s done all that – and more.
The publication in February of the team’s study, “The Feasibility of Renewable Natural Gas in New Jersey,” is the latest in a series of accolades. The student interns spoke in August 2019 during a New Jersey Board of Public Utilities review of the New Jersey energy master plan, presented their research at the national Bioenergy Sustainability Conference in Nashville in fall 2019 and were acknowledged at the annual shareowners meeting of New Jersey Resources that year.
“It was shocking, one after the other, how our research had an impact on a lot of different people and how they took it as the next step in renewable energy,” says Bates, who earned a degree from Montclair State in Physics, with a minor in Mathematics and concentration in Astronomy. He was recently hired as a data analyst for the New Jersey solar-panel company Green State Energy.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” adds Anneliese Dyer, a member of the team from Fairleigh Dickinson University, the study’s lead author – and now an energy efficiency analyst for New Jersey Natural Gas.
Bates and Dyer collaborated with Brianna Chandra, Juan Galindo Maza, Carley Tran and project managers Amelia Christine Miller and Vicky Olivier. Each comes from a different academic discipline and college, a hallmark of the internship program that matches community and business partners with undergraduate interns. In 2019, for example, the summer the New Jersey Natural Gas team undertook the renewal natural gas project, 40 undergraduates from 18 different colleges participated in the program, bringing with them diverse interests and majors, from STEM to accounting and public health to anthropology.
The internships are paid and supported by the PSEG Foundation, academic and corporate partners, and grants from the National Science Foundation and other foundations and private sources, and offered in partnership with New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability.
Tuininga says two new grants from the National Science Foundation – $2 million to engage Hispanic STEM students and their families with hands-on learning opportunities and $600,000 to explore the effectiveness of teaming STEM and non-STEM majors in project-based summer internships to improve STEM literacy for all – will allow the Green Teams program to continue to grow.
The New Jersey Natural Gas project is the type of partnership that could help the state – and the company – achieve important policy goals, including reducing dependence on fossil fuels and curbing greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global climate change.
“A renewable energy grid is going to require many different alternatives,” says Dyer, who discusses in the paper that renewable natural gas produced from landfills and wastewater treatment plants can aid in this. “One option will not solve all our problems.”
The interns studied the ways states like California and Vermont have been able to create an alternative energy source from municipal trash and wastewater sludge, and then conducted a data analysis of landfills and wastewater treatment plants in the Garden State.
Out of seven viable landfills and 22 potential wastewater treatment sites, the feasibility analysis identified four landfills and one wastewater treatment site that would provide clear financial and environmental benefits for home heating.
“If state assistance is put in place,” the team said in prepared remarks before the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, “this could offer an affordable residential option that could ultimately reduce New Jersey’s carbon footprint and stimulate the local economy.”
Miller, a research associate with the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies, says “It’s projects like this, where they’re a little bit on the edge of what is possible, that’s exciting for the Green Teams.”
Mark G. Kahrer, senior vice president of Regulatory Affairs and Energy Efficiency, oversaw the students’ work and study at New Jersey Natural Gas. “As we work toward our 60% by 2030 emissions reduction target, the introduction of decarbonized fuels into our supply, like renewable natural gas, will be important. The work these talented students completed will also be important to help New Jersey identify cost-effective solutions to move us into the clean energy future.”
The Green Teams program is accepting applications for corporate and agency partners for summer 2021. Learn more at montclair.edu/pseg-sustainability-institute.
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren
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