If in the future there is a major storm, and you do not see sewage flowing through the streets of your town, a word of thanks to Mitch Carpen may be in order.
When Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, the storm dumped so much rain in such a short amount of time that the state’s sewage treatment plants would have been hard-pressed to keep up with the resulting floods — if they had worked at all. Instead, when the power went out, many sewage treatment plants went offline because they lacked backup generators. The effects were devastating.
According to a report by Climate Central, the Palmer Square-based think tank —the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission in Newark was knocked out by the storm. In the week it took to get the plant back up and running, almost a billion gallons of untreated sewage flowed into Newark Bay. In the two weeks that followed while the plant was partially operating, another 3 billion gallons of partially treated sewage overflowed. In Middlesex County another 1.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage was released into local waters.
Making sure that doesn’t happen again is the job of Carpen, who leads the state’s Energy Resiliency Bank in Trenton. Established last year with a $200 million federal disaster recovery grant, the bank’s task is to finance projects that will allow critical institutions to keep the lights on during emergencies. Carpen says the number one priority is building backup generators at wastewater treatment plants.
“Most of our infrastructure didn’t perform well during Hurricane Sandy,” Carpen says. “The resilience bank is mandated to ensure that when rebuilding happens, it’s in a resilient manner — that facilities have the ability to isolate and cut away from the grid when it is down.”
Carpen will speak on Friday, March 6, at an event called Accelerating New Jersey’s Clean Energy Business Economy. The event, sponsored by Rutgers, the Pew Clean Energy Business Network, and the New Jersey Tech Council, will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Rutgers EcoComplex on 1200 Florence-Columbus Road in Bordentown. To register for the free event, call 215-478-1444 or E-Mail email@example.com. Other speakers include former governor James Florio, Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Upendra J. Chivukula, Lynn Abramson of the Pew Clean Energy Network, and Serpil Guran, director of the EcoComplex.
The Energy Resilience Bank shares staff and office space with the Board of Public Utilities and the Economic Development Authority. Carpen leads a team of five people who oversee the administration of the loans. Among the weapons in the bank’s arsenal are the abilities to issue loan forgiveness and grants and to tap into Societal Benefit funds collected from New Jersey taxpayers. Carpen says the bank can use grants and forgiveness to meet up to 40 percent of the funding of generator projects, with low-interest loans covering the remaining 60 percent.
Carpen says the bank has already allocated $150 million for generator projects.
“We started out with wastewater treatment because it brings about the highest benefit to society,” Carpen says. “Healthcare would be another one that would generate a significant amount of societal benefits.” However, the bank is not likely to run out of wastewater projects any time soon. “We are fortunate to have $200 million, but it is not nearly enough to meet the need in New Jersey,” Carpen says. “We want to get the private sector involved. They could help us finance these deals.”
Carpen believes he has the background to work with private financial institutions, since he spent most of his career at banks. When he took leadership of the Energy Resilience Bank in 2014, it was his first public sector job.
Carpen grew up in New Jersey where his father was in the finance industry. He earned a bachelor’s in computer science at Rutgers before being recruited by Prudential as a quantitative analyst. He made a career in international banking, working for several New York banks before becoming head of portfolio analysis and analytics for the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, studying startup risk management in Singapore. He left that job to join the state government.
Carpen says that as the head of a new agency, he has the chance to build it up from scratch. He noted that other government agencies had engaged in bad deals with the financial sector in the past, for example when pension funds invested in risky financial products and lost billions in the mortgage crisis. Those are mistakes he says he can avoid because of his understanding gained by working in the finance sector for more than 20 years.
So far the bank’s funds have gone to assist backup power generation projects in Newark — where billions of gallons overflowed — and in Middletown and Camden and Atlantic counties.
If the bank accomplishes its primary goals of ensuring backup power to sewage and healthcare facilities, Carpen says solar power installations could be the next point of attack.
One counter-intuitive effect of Sandy was that buildings with solar panels lost power even though they had the means of generating electricity. That was because solar arrays are designed to feed power back into the grid to sell to the power company. They are also automatically designed to stop working if the main grid goes down so as not to shock unsuspecting utility workers.
Carpen says solar systems could be retrofitted with sophisticated electronic switching systems that would allow them to disconnect from the grid instead of shutting off when the power goes out, to prevent it from backfeeding into the grid. Carpen says laws would have to be changed to make this happen, but that increasing “distributed” power generation like solar panels is a worthy goal.
“We don’t realize how dependent we are on the grid,” Carpen says. “Other countries across the globe, for example, those in Europe, are a bit ahead of us in terms of distributive generation and renewable tie-ins. It’s about time for it to happen here.”