CAMDEN, NJ — Some Camden residents believe a proposed microgrid in the waterfront south, which the City Council passed a feasibility study for earlier this week, should merit more community input before moving forward.

While others, citing health and environmental impacts, say the city should seek alternatives that have nothing to do with the facility the microgrid would be linked to: the local incinerator, Covanta.

The study passed Monday was the second of two.

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The initial 2018 study centered on a “sustainability loop” between the Camden Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) and Covanta — which would create “on-site generated electricity” between both of the facilities “with the entire project wrapped in a protective microgrid.”

Microgrids are local energy grids that act as backup for the main grid, allowing communities to cut energy costs and maintain power in the event of an outage.

“We absolutely understand and appreciate the benefits of a microgrid,” Marcus Sibley, spokesperson for the New Jersey State Conference NAACP Environmental Justice and Climate Committee, said during a public meeting to discuss the matter Friday. 

“But on a worldwide scale, people are making investments in going green," he continued. "So if everywhere in the world is making that [financial] investment to go green, why would Camden be making an investment to prolong something that's been polluting the air and hurting children and families for decades?”

Covanta already converts waste into energy.

According to its website, its facility processes some 1,050 tons of solid waste each day and produces a net output of 21 megawatts.  

Covanta would also no longer need to depend on water from the local aquifer system, a system that flows from the Delaware River, since the plan involves the company relying on CCMUA’s treated wastewater instead.

According to planners, the project would require utility connections from Covanta to CCMUA’s plant and could be added to the existing facility.

City Council President Curtis Jenkins emphasized that Monday’s vote was part of early stages, saying there is still much to delve into when it comes to the project.

"We're looking for answers also," Jenkins said.

Before the microgrid becomes a reality, it would still need to pass through the Planning Board and be voted upon by the City Council.

Engaging the waterfront south

The hearing at noon today came four days after the Camden City Council voted 4-2 to pass the second feasibility study.

Councilman Angel Fuentes was not present at the meeting earlier this week.

Councilmember-at-Large Sheila Davis and Councilwoman Shaneka Boucher — who represents the ward within the project area — voted not to approve the resolution during the meeting. 

Boucher said she held out on the vote after not having the appropriate amount of time and information to fully commit to a decision.

“Although this is going through in terms of the Planning Board, and other city boards, Carlos [Morales, executive director of Heart of Camden] and I are going to continue to be a part of the process because we are leaders in the community and will do everything that we can to make sure that community concerns are heard within the project," Boucher said in a phone conference with TAPinto Camden. 

Boucher said, especially during heightened health anxieties brought on by the pandemic, that she understands the community’s concerns.

She also has daughter who has dealt with asthma issues.

“I think it would be remiss of me as a leader to not hold this corporation accountable, not just for what they want to do in the future but for everything that they've also done in the past...and weigh both,” she said. 

Morales said The Heart of Camden’s position on the microgrid at the time “is no position,” with more community engagement necessary to fully realize their stance.

“The only real recent engagement has understandably surrounded the immediate needs of COVID-19,” Morales said. “There really hasn't been an open discussion about this issue.” 

‘Poking a bear’

During an appearance on weekly online show, “The Urban Disruptor,” Freeholder Jeff Nash likened matters brought to the council having to do with the Covanta incinerator to “poking a bear.”

He said ideally the incinerator would have never been based out of the city of Camden — but considers the microgrid itself to be a force for good.

Stepping back, the microgrid is part of a larger redevelopment plan for an 18-acre section of land adjacent to Morgan Blvd — a draft of which is provided in the agenda.

Kathryn Cruz, a coordinator with the Center for Environmental Transformation, said Friday that when the plan was introduced years ago it promised direct community benefits for the city’s poorest and most-vulnerable communities. 

“The microgrid proposal with Covanta as the source of energy seems very irresponsible,” Cruz said. “It's the opposite of sustainable and it's in direct opposition to community well-being, especially for those who are already burdened by environmental injustice.”

Adam Zellner, whose company Greener by Design conducted the environmental and technical feasibility study for the project, said the microgrid would have benefits that go beyond the life cycle of the company. 

Covanta did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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