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, only about 16,000 out of more than 3 million electriccustomers 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, accordingby the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Nationwide, more than 650,000 customers are participating in utility green energy programs, accounting for roughly 5percent of total electricity sales, NREL reported. Wind accounts for two-thirdsof the electricity generated for green energy programs.
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 withtheir existing electric utility, pay a premium of 2 cents per kilowatt hour upto 3.5 cents a kilowatt hour for the electricity they use. For the typicalcustomer, 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, butthe premium helps to buy up renewable energy certificates, which help promotesolar 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 electricutilities, 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’sefforts to promote cleaner ways of producing electricity, a policy causing someconcern 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.
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, thesecond most in the nation behind California. “That is people actually puttingup concrete money,” Pisauro said, referring to the tens of thousands of dollarsthose 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’sutility 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 allsources of power ought to be cleaner,” he said.