Few companies in New Jersey have embraced solar energy as enthusiastically as Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG). The Newark-based corporation has invested more than a quarter billion dollars in the technology, installing solar systems on schools, homes and brownfields.
Perhaps it is no surprise then -- with the Christie administration mulling over scaling back the state’s aggressive solar energy goals -- that PSEG's top executive, Ralph Izzo, issued a strong endorsement of an ambitious clean energy agenda, even while acknowledging that renewables are more expensive than conventional fossil fuels.
"This is not the time to retreat from public policies that have enabled New Jersey to reap a growing stream of environmental and economic benefits from green energy and jobs," Izzo said yesterday at the Networked Solar conference sponsored byat the Westin Hotel in Jersey City.
In his remarks, Izzo noted that the ongoing review of the state’s Energy Master Plan (EMP), according to people familiar with the plan, is likely to recommend pulling back from some of the strategies that have helped propel New Jersey to second behind only California in states producing solar energy.
"We should feel 'Jersey Pride' in this achievement," said Izzo, an energy executive who has been outspoken in promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, a stance that has put him at odds with other energy executives. "Nevertheless, our leaders and policymakers are asking: 'Can we afford it?'"
It is an important question, Izzo said, but he offered a vigorous defense of the state’s solar policies, questioning if the state can afford to be left behind while other jurisdictions reap the benefits of a green economy.
In questions from the audience, Izzo was asked if PSEG would continue its leadership role in renewables if changes were made to the EMP. "We are not a nonprofit," Izzo told the questioner, former commissioner of the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) Fred Butler. He added that it would depend upon whether the agency would allow the company a fair return on its investment in the sector.
Under legislation approved more than a year ago, the state ramped up its goals for solar energy, setting a target that solar systems would produce enough electricity by 2026 to roughly equal the output of five nuclear power plants. But with the cost of solar far more expensive than conventional power plants, businesses and others have lobbied to scale back that goal.
Izzo conceded renewable power, including solar, is more expensive, but argued in relation to cost, there are a slew of benefits that come with solar power. They include the environmental and health benefits associated with clean energy, which produces no pollution; the advantage of reducing reliance on fossil fuels as a national security issue; and the economic benefits in the form of new green jobs, he said.
With lucrative subsidies, the solar industry has been one of the few growing markets in the state, reaching more than 200 firms and about 3,000 employees since the state began aggressively supporting the sector, first with rebates and then with solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) for each megawatt of electricity the systems generate. Those jobs, Izzo said, are not only for those who install the solar panels, but are also opportunities in engineering, communications, marketing, sales and other areas.
"Let me be clear. I am not saying we should ignore cost imperatives. Just the opposite. Scaling up the effort and, over time, driving down costs need to go together,’’ he said. Here, utilities can play a crucial role, Izzo argued. In ending, Izzo urged the state to continue on its path to clean energy.
"Questions of affordability may tempt us to scale back, but we should be asking can we afford to be left behind," he said.