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New Jersey Board of Public Utilities Faces Big Backlog of Cases

With a reputation as one of the slowest-acting agencies in state government, the BPU faces a range of cases, from rate requests that could increase utility bills to a bitterly opposed high-voltage transmission line.

When asked by a reporter what qualified him to be president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, Lee Solomon, Gov. Chris Christie’s nominee to head the state agency, responded that as a sitting judge, he is used to making tough decisions.

If confirmed by the state Senate, Solomon, a former county prosecutor and assemblyman, may soon be calling on that skill quite often.

The BPU, with a reputation as one of the slowest-acting agencies in state government, faces a big backlog of cases, ranging from rate requests that could increase utility bills by more than $300 million dollars to deciding whether to approve a bitterly opposed high-voltage transmission line cutting through the heart of the Highlands.

Beyond those immediate issues, the new administration appears willing to undertake a fresh look at one of the more far-reaching efforts of former governor John Corzine: the state’s energy master plan, a document that calls for a dramatic shift in how residents and businesses use energy and how it is produced. Advocates say the plan will usher in a new era of efficient energy use and promote cleaner sources of power, such as solar and wind. Critics say it could lead to even higher electric and gas bills and threaten the reliability of the regional power grid.

In his press conference announcing Solomon’s nomination, Christie said he wanted his cabinet to look at the energy master plan with an eye toward improving it. Among the more contentious parts of the plan are the aggressive targets to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020, and to produce at least 30 percent of the state’s electricity through renewable energy sources.

Ratepayer Advocate Stefanie Brand said it is not unusual for so many issues to confront the BPU, given the crucial priority given to energy policy at both the state and federal levels. The Corzine and Obama administrations put a premium on creating jobs through the growth of a green economy powered by cleaner energy and smarter consumption of fuels.

“There is certainly a lot on the plate, especially with all the attention being placed on clean energy,” said Brand, one of the few holdovers from the Corzine administration. The amount of pending rate cases is directly tied to the economic stimulus projects the Corzine administration urged gas and electric companies to undertake as a way of creating jobs during the height of the recession.

The rate cases are not the only potential landmine left by the Corzine administration. On Jan. 15, just days before Christie was inaugurated, the BPU held off on allowing Public Service Electric & Gas to build a high-voltage transmission line through the Highlands. The project is widely opposed by local communities and conservationists, but if it is not built, the state could experience reliability problems as soon as the summer of 2012, according to PJM Interconnection, the independent operator of the nation’s largest power grid, including the one that serves the entire Eastern seaboard.

In addition, the new administration will have to decide whether to require the owners of Oyster Creek, the nation’s oldest commercial nuclear power plant, to build cooling towers to reduce the station’s impact on aquatic life in Barnegat Bay. If ordered to build them, Exelon Generation, the owner of the 625- megawatt facility, has said it will close the plant, which could further strain the region’s ability to meet power needs while increasing electric bills for consumers.

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