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NJ Residents Still Steering Clear of Clean Energy

In spite of state’s best efforts, only a small percentage of electric customers pay the premium for wind, solar and hydro generation.

Even as New Jersey aggressively embraces solar and wind power, most of its residents are shunning the opportunity to buy cleaner but more expensive ways of producing electricity.

Five years after the launch of the CleanPower Choice program, only about 16,000 out of more than 3 million electric customers have signed up to pay a premium on their electric bills to have their power produced by wind farms, solar installations or small hydro power plants, according to industry officials familiar with the effort.

That is a far cry from other states that have offered green energy programs for their customers. For instance, Portland General Electric, a utility serving nearly 800,000 people in Oregon, has had 72,812 customers join its green energy program, the most of any utility in the nation, according to an assessment by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Enrollment in CleanPower Choice program since its inception in 2005.

Nationwide, more than 650,000 customers are participating in utility green energy programs, accounting for roughly 5 percent of total electricity sales, NREL reported. Wind accounts for two-thirds of the electricity generated for green energy programs.

Higher Monthly Bills

In New Jersey, three different suppliers offer a menu of green energy programs, mostly involving wind and small hydro, although one, Community Energy, includes a tiny amount of solar. Customers, who remain with their existing electric utility, pay a premium of 2 cents per kilowatt hour up to 3.5 cents a kilowatt hour for the electricity they use. For the typical customer, that amounts to another $14 or more on their electric bill each month. The customer does not necessarily receive power from wind or solar farms, but the premium helps to buy up renewable energy certificates, which help promote solar and wind power.

The state Board of Public Utilities, which oversees the program, could not offer a precise number on how many customers have signed up for the program. According to the state’s four electric utilities, 14,000 have enrolled; the energy marketers say the number is 16,000. A spokesman for the agency said they could not account for the differing numbers.

The fact that so few customers have signed up for the green energy program seems to reflect an indifference to the state’s efforts to promote cleaner ways of producing electricity, a policy causing some concern among business interests because of the higher cost of renewable energy.

New Jersey wants 30 percent of its electricity to be generated by renewables by 2020, a target that envisions huge growth in the number of solar installations in the state and at least 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind farms. Roughly 2 percent of the state’s electricity comes from renewable sources today. Last week, a state energy official projected the cost of meeting both goals could run more than $10 billion for both solar and wind investments.

Economic Factors or Energy Bias?

Clean energy advocates and environmentalists argue the small number of people participating in the CleanPower Choice program is more of a reflection of economic times and poor outreach than of the public’s attitude toward solar and wind power.

“I think inertia plays a big role. People live busy lives,” said Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environment. “Fifteen thousand sounds about right when you are talking about people motivated to the do research.”

Mike Pisauro, a lawyer representing the New Jersey Environmental Lobby, argued a better indicator of the public’s support for renewable energy is the state’s solar program, which has helped residents and businesses install more than 6,000 solar systems around the state, the second most in the nation behind California. “That is people actually putting up concrete money,” Pisauro said, referring to the tens of thousands of dollars those systems can cost.

Others, such as Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, attributed the low sign-up rate to an ineffective advertising campaign and the extra money added to a customer’s utility bill. “Right now, people are really hurting,” Tittel said.

Still, the annual assessment by the NERL found the average net price premium for utility green power products dropped from 3.48 cents per kilowatt hour in 2000 to 1.75 cents in 2009.

“Despite the economic downturn, consumers are continuing to support the development of renewable energy by voluntarily participating in utility green power programs,” said Lori Bird, senior energy analyst at NERL.

John Holtz, director of the East region for the Green Mountain Energy Company, one of the three green suppliers in the state, would not disclose how many customers it has signed up in New Jersey, but he noted the company is very happy with the low churn rate among those who have. “This is a niche market,” he said. “It’s not for everyone.”

Pringle said the state program underscores the need for policymakers to enact strong mandates to shift to cleaner energy. “If we leave it up to the individual to find the cleanest power, it’s going to be much less successful than if we have strong state policy mandating all sources of power ought to be cleaner,” he said.

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