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Fishermen’s Energy Wants State Supreme Court to Rule on Wind-Farm Project

Twice blocked by the BPU and rejected by the appellate court, offshore wind developer hopes to get its day in top court

wind turbine

Fishermen’s Energy is taking its case to save its pilot offshore wind farm, which would be located about three miles from Atlantic City, to the state Supreme Court.

The proposed 25-megawatt wind farm in shallow coastal waters already has been rejected twice by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, a decision upheld by a state appellate court last month. It is the only offshore wind project to come before the agency, which called the proposal too costly to utility customers who would help pay for the facility.

The failure of the project has angered clean-energy advocates and many lawmakers, who see it as helping advance bigger offshore wind turbines along the coast. The state’s Energy Master Plan has a goal of developing 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind by 2020, a target most say is unlikely to be achieved.

Beyond not clearing the way for Fishermen’s Energy, critics are upset with the BPU for failing to adopt crucial regulations that would help provide financing from ratepayers to make offshore wind happen. A bipartisan bill to promote offshore wind directing the BPU to adopt those regulations was passed and signed by Gov. Chris Christie in the summer of 2010.

Whether Fishermen’s Energy can sway the state’s highest court is questionable. Courts typically defer to any agency’s “expertise’’ -- the term the appellate court used in its ruling.

“It is that deference that is an issue,’’ said Paul Gallagher, chief operating officer and general counsel for the company. “Is deference appropriate when the factual record shows that the reasons the BPU claims for disapproval are not true?’’

The primary dispute between the agency and Fishermen’s Energy is how much electricity generated by the offshore wind turbines would cost. The company said it would cost much less than projected by the BPU staff, who questioned whether Fishermen’s Energy would receive the federal assistance it was counting on. Without the subsidies, staff projected it could cost customers $240 million over 20 years.

The project was initially opposed by the New Jersey Ratepayer Advocate, but it, too, urged approval of the project to the BPU. It argued that the project had a reasonably good chance of receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. It already has been awarded $47 million from that agency.

With the delays in the project, however, that approval is not certain. The company said yesterday it planned to ask the federal agency for a contract extension until its appeal to the Supreme Court is decided.

Given the abundant wind resources along the Jersey coast, at least 10 developers have expressed an interest in building offshore wind farms. Although the federal government has set aside thousands of acres where they could be developed, it has yet to offer leases for those tracts.

No offshore wind farms have been built in the United States, unlike Europe where many projects are now operating. At one time, New Jersey hoped to be the first to develop the industry, which proponents said could lead to the creation of thousands of jobs manufacturing components for the farms.

Fishermen’s Energy’s Chris Wissemann, its chief executive officer, said it had no choice but to pursue the appeal. “The BPU’s decision, and in particular the stated rationale for their decision, cannot be left standing or it will ensure that no offshore wind projects are ever approved in New Jersey,’’ he said.

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