By Christine Todd Whitman
November 29, 2014

As our federal and state governments launch a serious attack against climate change, New Jersey has a new opportunity to lead the way in supporting a clean energy future.

New Jersey is already one of the leading states when it comes to producing electricity from carbon-free sources of energy, thanks to a power portfolio that includes emissions-free nuclear energy, solar power and wind energy. As a result, we are ranked in the top third of states with the least amount of carbon pollution.

While on the right track toward a clean energy future, we must acknowledge that there is room for improvement, and we can lead this effort.

If we are serious about addressing climate change in the future, while maintaining reliability and affordability of our electric supply, we need to embrace all clean energy options. Diversity of technologies and fuel in our state’s electric system is the most cost-effective means of managing the risks of disruptions. In fact, a recent study by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based IHS Energy revealed that diversity of supply lowers the cost of electricity by more than $93 billion a year nationwide and halves the potential variability of monthly power bills compared to a less diverse supply.

Renewables like wind and solar are increasingly important to our state and our country. In fact, solar-generated electricity experienced the greatest amount of net growth among renewable sources, increasing by 115 percent nationwide since the first half of 2013. But even with this impressive growth, renewable energy sources produce only a fraction of our electricity needs, and they are intermittent sources of power. Nuclear energy, operating 24/7 for up to 24 months without refueling, is the workhorse of the carbon-free portfolio.

Nuclear energy generates 51 percent of the state’s electricity, and all but a fraction of New Jersey’s carbon-free power. The industry’s economic footprint in the states is even greater, with $259 million of materials, services and fuel for the industry purchased from more than 1,000 New Jersey companies.

Our electricity demands are growing again, having rebounded from the recession. This highlights the crucial current and future role that emissions-free, always-on energy sources like nuclear power should play in our energy portfolio.

As experts predict another harsh winter, we should consider that not all energy sources are the same – either in terms of meeting the high electricity demand during extreme temperatures or avoiding unwanted price spikes. During the Polar Vortex last winter, nuclear energy facilities around the country helped to maintain reliability of the electricity grid in the face of extreme weather – operating as high as 97 percent efficiency – proving to be stable and reliable while emitting zero carbon. On the other hand, the price of electricity supplied by natural gas-fueled power plants spiked by triple digits in some states.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The Clean Power Plan would reduce carbon from the electric power sector by 30 percent by 2030. With this goal in mind, we must also consider that our country’s electricity needs are projected to grow by 28 percent by 2040. It will take a diverse mix of energy sources and conservation initiatives to satisfy our nation’s ever-growing appetite for electricity while keeping our air clean. That means extending the operation of today’s reactors while building next-generation nuclear energy technology to serve future generations who will demand both reliable electricity and clean air.

In an environment of heightened political partisanship, public policy often gets bogged down in debate over choosing energy winners and losers. We need a new approach—one that sets a clear and simple goal of carbon reductions and rewards all carbon-free sources equally. Rather than encouraging renewable energy sources in low-carbon portfolios, as many states historically have done – these standards should be expanded to embrace all clean energy sources that contribute to a lower-emission future.

Regardless of your political stripes, everyone can agree that we want reliable, affordable energy and clean air to breathe.

Christine Todd Whitman co-chairs the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. She is the former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.