NJ Transit officials outlined a plan to find engineers and consultants with the expertise to design the $577 million Transitgrid back-up power system in Kearny in as green a way as possible, with a goal of awarding a construction contract in Dec. 2022.

However, a gas power plant is not entirely off the table, if a suitable design can’t be found, officials said.

Agency officials provided a road map on Wednesday night about how that’s going to happen, after hearing some praise from environmentalists who lobbied for a year and a half to scuttle a planned natural gas fired power plant.

“We are so glad to hear your new commitment to renewable energy,” said Janet Glass of North Bergen, one of hundreds who opposed the plant. “New Jersey could be making history. Thank you for listening and I urge you to stick with it.”

The 140 megawatt generator is part of the larger NJ Transitgrid Power System, a $577 million project that would provide electricity to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, parts of NJ Transit’s Morris and Essex lines and the Hudson-Bergen light rail in case of a power outage. The project is partly funded with $410 million in federal Hurricane Sandy resiliency funds.

The agency is taking several steps to follow through, voting unanimously Wednesday night to create a $3 million incentive to encourage companies with expertise and experience in renewable energy to participate.

Three awards of $1 million each would be made to the companies submitting the three best runner-up proposals and the fourth company would be awarded the contract, said Eric Daleo, capital program vice president.

The stipend is to “let people know we’re serious and willing to pay,” said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit CEO.

Many board members praised the public and environmentalists who spoke monthly over the past 18 months about changing Transitgrid from a natural gas fueled power plant.

“We heard the public comments loud and clear and recognize as we move forward there is a need for NJ Transit to focus on the environment and it should be transparent,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, transportation commissioner and NJ Transit board chairwoman. “The (committee) meeting will be open to the public and allow for open dialog.”

The ultimate goal of the process outlined Wednesday night is to select an option for Transtgrid and award a contract to a developer in Dec. 2022. Transitgrid is expected to generate 4,200 construction jobs, officials said.

However, some environmentalists called on NJ Transit to make a total commitment to renewable energy by withdrawing its air permits for the natural gas fueled power plant.

“By withdrawing all permits and redesigning the project from the ground up to ensure renewables can succeed, NJ Transit can show it’s serious about its commitment to clean energy,” said Patty Cronheim, New Jersey League of Conservation Voters campaigns director. Transitgrid 2.0 needs to be more than a good faith effort to develop a clean and renewable alternative, you need to hit it out of the park.”

However a natural gas plant isn’t totally off the table.

“We’re looking to make it as green as possible, we want to get to the 100% goal,” Corbett said. “It does not preclude the use of a gas power plant.”

Ultimately, a final decision depends on ideas that consultants come up with and the feasibility of their proposal.

“We’re talking to leading engineers on renewables,” Corbett said. “There a lot of things that are out there. We’re waiting for the serious developers and want a quality effort.”

The stipend voted on by the board is part of a bigger process to find companies with expertise in solar power and renewable energy with the goal to qualify firms and award a bid in Dec. 2022. A two-step process would start with an Oct. 28 meeting with potential contractors and engineering companies and attendees can sign up on the NJ Transit website.

“Stipends encourage innovation and allow the best technical design from national and international vendors,” said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit CEO. “We will hold an outreach on Oct. 28 where interested people can learn about Transitgrid first hand.”

NJ Transit plans to hire a renewable energy consultant, who will help the agency draft a request for qualifications and evaluate the companies responding. The RFQ is scheduled to be advertised on Nov. 25. That consultant also will review the renewable energy aspect and help NJ Transit maximize use of solar, battery and other power.

In December 2021, NJ Transit plans to issue a request for proposals from up to four qualified companies that go through a competitive process to submit alternative clean energy options, including a 100% renewable option, to the extent that is technically feasible.

“Designs may supplement or replace the current power generation design for the proposed Microgrid facility,” said Megan Strickland, NJ Transit Chief of Capital Compliance, Budget and Administration.

The public won’t be left out. NJ Transit is planning a separate outreach to solicit input and update the public, she said.

Many environmentalists who spoke at the meeting said that Transitgrid could be a national model for other transit systems.

“NJ Transit could establish itself as experts in clean energy storage and provides tremendous economic and health benefits,” said Matthew Smith, Food and Water Watch state director, which mobilized many other groups.

“We’re encouraged by the commitment to have a through public process that allows input from greatest and brightest minds from around New Jersey,” he said.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].

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