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Environmentalists Urge Public to Come Out and Fight for Clean Energy

Draft Energy Master Plan could be next battleground between Democrats and administration.

With hearings scheduled to begin next week on a revamped draft Energy Master Plan, clean energy advocates and a prominent lawmaker yesterday called for increasing New Jersey's efforts to promote solar power and energy efficiency, instead of scaling back those goals.

Unhappy with the plan's lukewarm endorsement of New Jersey's aggressive solar targets, they urged the public to come out and fight to retain various programs, which they fear may be curtailed or eliminated.

"Without a large turnout for these hearings, we fear the Energy Master Plan will be adopted, undoing 20 years of environmental progress," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, at a Statehouse press conference.

The plan, overhauled by the Christie administration and released this past June, backs away from a goal of having 30 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, by 2020. It also reduces a goal to cut energy consumption by 20 percent by the same year. Such steps would be foolhardy, according to critics of the plan.

With three hearings over the next month, the plan is emerging as a new battleground between the administration and the Democratic-controlled legislature over energy policy in New Jersey. In recent months, Democrats have criticized and sought, so far unsuccessfully, to keep the administration from pulling out of a regional initiative to curb greenhouse gas emissions, as well to take more aggressive action to prevent drilling for natural gas in neighboring Pennsylvania, over concerns it could pollute the drinking water of the two states.

Green Jobs

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, citing a study by the Brookings Institute, said 26,000 green jobs have been created in New Jersey between 2003 and 2010. "Who, among any of us, is not about creating new jobs?" asked McKeon.

"This energy master plan will impede that progress and the continued creation of those green jobs," McKeon said. He plans to hold a joint hearing over the revised plan with the Senate Environment and Energy Committee in August. "This plan is short-sighted," he said.

New Jersey is second behind only California, with more than 8,000 solar installations. Its solar market is growing because of hefty subsidies from ratepayers, a situation the administration is seeking to change by scaling back surcharges on customers' bills, eliminating rebates for smaller residential projects, and emphasizing larger, utility-class projects that reduce costs because of economies of scale.

That recommendation is opposed by some in the solar industry. "Investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, particularly distributed solar energy, generate several times more local jobs than investments in nuclear or fossil fuel generation," said Dennis Wilson, president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry trade group.

Beyond scaling back the state’s renewable targets, critics of the plan also faulted it for pushing for the building of more natural gas plants and acknowledging the need to rely on nuclear power for the foreseeable future.

"We need citizens to show up at these hearings and remind the governor that New Jersey has some of the worst air pollution in the nation," said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. "It’s time to ramp up our efforts to promote clean energy instead of increasing our unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels."

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