New Jersey and the rest of the Northeast have for the most part embraced renewable energy with the ardor associated with motherhood and apple pie -- unless it means importing that power thousands of miles from the wind-swept plains of the Midwest.
In a battle likely to be played out later this summer, the governors of 11 states along the eastern seaboard and 10 big utilities are opposing efforts to build a series of new transmission lines that would send wind-generated electricity east from the Dakotas and elsewhere, projects that would lead to higher energy bills for utility customers, according to critics.
In a letter to leaders of both parties in the U.S. Senate, the governors are lobbying against provisions in a pending renewable energy bill that would spread the cost of building the high-voltage lines, projected to cost at least $16 billion, among ratepayers in multiple states. The new lines are being pushed by the American Solar Energies Association and American Wind Energy Association, trade groups based in Washington, D.C.
The controversy comes at a time when New Jersey and other states are moving ahead aggressively with their own renewable energy projects. At least four developers are seeking approval to build huge offshore wind farms off the coast of southern New Jersey, and similar projects are pending in Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The eastern states contend saddling ratepayers with the costs of building the new transmission lines will hinder their efforts to meet tough renewable energy goals with regional resources, an argument supported by clean energy advocates.
“Our preference is to have these facilities located locally,” said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “It’s far more efficient. We don’t need to be importing wind from Iowa and other states. In New Jersey, we have so much untapped potential for offshore wind energy.”
Bruce Edelston, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy, a group of utilities that includes Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group, agreed, saying New Jersey customers would end up paying twice for renewable energy. “They would be paying to transport that wind energy, which they don’t need because they already are generating renewable energy here.”
The cost to ratepayers could increase electric bills by hundred dollars or more a year, if the planned transmission lines were constructed, Edelston said.
Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with Glenrock Associates in New York, said the issue of building new transmission lines to move renewable energy is one of the more contentious issues before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the transmission grid. One of the big hurdles is that it’s most windy in sparsely populated areas, far from where most of the power is needed, Patterson said.
“This is not going to be cheap,” the analyst said. “Understandably, utilities are saying what are the benefits to my customers of paying for this project. The bottom line is that it behooves the utilities to be cautious because it could cause a backlash among their customers.”
Tim Fagan, director of public policy for PSEG, said spreading the cost of the transmission lines among multiple states would amount to a subsidization of the wind power generated in the Midwest.
“The transport of the resource is a cost and it should be reflected in the price,” Fagan said. “We just want to see a level playing field. The resources on the East Coast should have a fair chance to get built.”
Calls to the American Wind Energy Association, which has been one of the main proponents of building the lines and of giving the federal agency more authority to spread out costs among all ratepayers, were not returned.
Beyond the ability to build locally generated renewable resources, environmentalists also worry that a new transmission line might be used to wheel cheaper and dirty coal power from the Midwest, said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.