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Opinion: In Fight Against Global Warming, Will NJ Lead or Lag Behind?

With President-elect Trump’s Scott Pruitt headed for the EPA, this is not the time to skimp on solar spending

potter
Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter

Has New Jersey lost its way in the effort to promote renewable energy as an antidote to the worst impacts of global climate change? Perhaps not entirely, but fractures are beginning to appear and deepen in what was once a solid front of support for making our state the national leader when it comes to substituting clean and abundant solar energy for carbon-based fuels in the production of electric power.

Now comes news that President-elect Donald Trump will appoint as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the outspoken global-warming denier Scott Pruitt. As Oklahoma attorney general he’s been leading the charge against President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (joined by 28 states including New Jersey, thank you Gov. Chris Christie).

Thus, it’s all the more important for the states to take up the challenge of arresting climate change. But will New Jersey be a leader or a laggard?  Hard to tell, given recent events.

On November 30, the Board of Public Utilities voted by the narrowest of margins (3-2) to approve the stripped-down plan by Public Service Electric & Gas, one of the “greenest” of electric utilities in the nation, to expend $80 million to develop a mere 33 megawatts of solar electric facilities on former garbage dumps and brownfields.

As the plan was originally filed, PSE&G called for spending $276 million to build 100 megawatts of brownfields electric capacity, essentially solar farms covering abandoned industrial sites and closed landfills.

But heated opposition led by a coalition of industrial energy users helped to reduce the PSE&G plan by nearly two-thirds, as set forth in a lengthy stipulation approved by the BPU.

Opponents of the PSE&G initiative asserted that the cost to ratepayers of the so-called solar subsidy was becoming excessive, even though financing the program comes to a nearly invisible 4 cents a year before maxing out at 24 cents annually.

That’s right: Two cents per month for the average residential user to keep the state moving on track to advance solar projects and jobs, and to put formerly polluting landfills and industrial sites to “socially beneficial use,” as BPU President Richard Mroz wisely pointed out.

This wringing of hands over feared impacts of the PSE&G program included opposition to the utility’s plan to “rate base” its cost. This would allow PSE&G to profit from the undertaking with costs embedded in consumer rates, which is how almost all of the region’s large power plants were financed and built.

Those objecting to the plan included two BPU commissioners who argued that PSE&G should have used an unregulated affiliate competing in the solar marketplace, not the regulated utility, even though recent legislation expressly authorizes the rate-base approach to spur utilities to invest more of their “patient capital” in renewable energy projects.

Those objections, however sincere, miss the point:

President-elect Trump campaigned on a promise to unshackle the coal and oil industry and to reject the Paris Climate Accord signed by some 200 nations. His appointment of Pruitt to head if not to dismantle the EPA dashes whatever hope was briefly raised by Trump’s 90-minute meeting with Al Gore.

The states must step into the leadership vacuum in battling global warming, perhaps our last hope for achieving meaningful limits on greenhouse gases despite Trump’s retrograde policies and regulatory appointments.

So instead of pushing against PSE&G’s latest solar initiative, BPU regulators and consumer protectors alike should call for still more solar development by whatever legitimate means, until literally every available rooftop and brownfield is covered in solar panels and offshore wind turbines to distract and delight vacationers at the Jersey Shore.

It makes no sense to quibble during the several months consumed in negotiation over the PSE&G proposal, when the cost of more solar is a few cents or even a few dollars more in higher utility bills — not when poll after poll shows overwhelming public support for increasing our commitment to renewables.

More importantly, it is no exaggeration, however alarmist it sounds, to say that the fate of the planet and with it little New Jersey is hanging in the balance. A growing consensus of global climate scientists warns that unless there is decisive, immediate, and sustained  action at every level of every government, we face the prospect of climate disasters taking many forms: 

  • Imagine dramatic increases in extreme weather – such as a Hurricane Sandy — fed by rising atmospheric and ocean temperatures, hitting the New Jersey and mid-Atlantic coastline every few years.

  • Imagine the flooding of sea-level cities from Miami to Newark and beyond, permanently flooding low-lying areas, as predicted in a sternly worded report by the normally staid Regional Plan Association (RPA) and reported in NJ Spotlight.com.

  • Imagine summer temperatures routinely soaring above 100 degrees and rendering some parts of the country virtually uninhabitable.  Say good bye to Dallas and New Delhi, where the streets were literally melting last summer.

The list of climate-related disasters goes on and on, all but certain to happen if not to us then to our children and grandchildren, if we do not reorient our available resources toward a rapid phase out of carbon-based fuels — coal, oil, and even “clean-burning” natural gas — and substitute energy efficiency and renewable energy and storage systems.

Even nuclear power, for all its inherent risks, if limited to getting the most out of operating units that meet up-to-date safety and environmental standards, has a vital role to play in staving off these creeping catastrophes.

As for state utility regulators who worry about the cost of promoting more solar, there are alternatives to our reliance on a commodity-pricing model — letting uncertain market forces, supply and demand, determine how much a solar developer gets paid for solar-produced electricity, so-called solar renewable energy credits (SRECs).

According to a detailed study by Lyle Rawlings, president of the MidAtlantic Solar Industries Association (MSEIA), New Jersey’s SRECs system leads to costs that are as much as five to seven times higher than neighboring New York’s. 

In the Empire State, as described by Rawlings, regulators determine a specific and declining rate for a designated “block” of solar capacity, thereby eliminating the uncertainty of future market conditions, which in turn leads investors to demand higher returns and drives up cost.  

And another thing: Let’s stop calling it a “subsidy” to pay more for solar power than for fossil fuel-burning sources — a disparity that in any case is rapidly evaporating as the price for solar panels continues to plummet.  Solar provides a wealth of societal and environmental benefits that justify adding a premium for “green” power, compared to fossil fuels, which are polluting our air, land, and water.

In short, it’s wake up time for New Jersey and these Divided States of America to pick up the slack in countering global warming, as we move unsteadily into the dark reality of Donald Trump’s presidency.

This article was edited after it was originally posted.

R. William Potter is a partner in the Princeton-based law firm Potter and Dickson. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or any client.

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