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Democrats Challenge Administration's Draft Energy Plan

Rolling back renewable energy goals is seen as a serious misstep by lawmakers and environmentalists.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

With the Christie administration yet to end hearings on a draft Energy Master Plan, Democratic lawmakers already are threatening to reverse a decision to scale back New Jersey’s renewable energy goals.

In a press conference, the two chairmen of key environmental committees in the legislature yesterday said they are drafting statutes that would restore a goal of having 30 percent of the state's electricity produced by renewable energy, instead of the 22.5 percent target set by the administration in its revised plan issued this June.

The dispute has emerged as perhaps the most contentious of many hotly debated issues involving the new plan, which has been embraced by the business community, but widely criticized by most environmental groups. In their teleconference call, the lawmakers were joined by frequent critics of the administration, such as the New Jersey Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey, but also by less vocal groups, such as the Association of New Jersey Environmental Groups and GreenFaith.

Pie In the Sky

The 30 percent goal was derided by Gov. Chris Christie as a "pie-in-the-sky" sop to special interests in the press conference unveiling the plan. Since then, administration officials have sought to rebuff criticism of scaling back renewable goals by emphasizing they retained the 22.5 percent renewable energy portfolio standard, which has always been in place. The 30 percent target set by the Corzine administration, they have argued, was merely an ambitious goal.

That view was dismissed yesterday by lawmakers, who plan to hold a joint legislative committee hearing on the plan tomorrow in Toms River. Clean energy advocates also plan on being in attendance.

Referring to reducing the 30 percent goal, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee said, "it is a red neon sign blinking and glowing to the alternative energy sector in New Jersey saying the state is not committed as it used to be."

Besides reducing the renewable energy goal, legislators and advocates slammed the administration for suggesting that New Jersey reduce aggressive solar goals, a suggestion Smith ridiculed saying solar is one of the few sectors actually creating jobs in the state.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste, agreed.

"It has helped generate tens of thousands of green jobs and positioned us to surpass some of our goals in the production of offshore wind and solar installations. We are at the apex of progress," McKeon said. By reducing our renewable energy goals, increasing our dependence on fossil fuels and withdrawing incentives for energy efficiency for residential ratepayers, the 2011 draft Energy Master Plan would be taking a giant step backwards.

Both lawmakers said they want to hear what the public has to say about the revised plan. They also mentioned they are preparing legislation that would retain at least a minimum amount to be raised by the societal benefits charge (SBC), a surcharge on gas and electric bills. The administration has talked about eliminating the surcharge, which, in some cases, costs businesses more than $1 million a year, but the typical residential customer about $5 per month. It is the primary means of funding renewable energy projects and energy efficiency projects in the state.

Clean energy advocates welcomed the hearing, saying they hope it leads to bills that would strengthen, rather than weaken, the three-year-old Energy Master Plan developed by the Corzine administration.

"We’re hoping the hearing will be a pivot point to restore and strengthen the plan," said Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

Smith raised the same point. "The administration has to understand they are absolutely going in the wrong direction and hopefully, we can get the administration to change its mind."

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