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Christie Hints He Might Sign Bill to Subsidize PSEG’s Nuclear Plants

Governor asserts he won’t back legislation that includes incentives for renewable energy

nuclear power plant

Gov. Chris Christie yesterday signaled he may be willing to sign a measure to prop up PSEG Power’s three nuclear power plants, but only if it does not include other incentives sought by environmentalists.

The governor told reporters he wants to see those plants continue to operate, but added his support could hinge on the nature and cost of the yet-to-be made public subsidy during a press conference in Trenton.

Public Service Enterprise Group, which owns the plants, has threatened to close the units because they may turn unprofitable in two years. The plants supply more than 40 percent of the state’s electricity but face economic challenges competing against natural-gas fired units.

Christie’s comments are the first he has made about an issue likely to spur a contentious fight in the lame-duck legislative session that ends early next year. PSEG is lobbying lawmakers for a subsidy, but for how long and how much is yet to be disclosed.

Intense criticism

Even without details, the proposal has come under intense criticism from a broad spectrum of interests, who claim the company has not proved the plants are unprofitable and any subsidy would undercut investments in cleaner renewable energy.

Christie reiterated his support of nuclear power, when asked about a possible subsidy. “Having nuclear power is an important thing to have, and I think it is important for our energy security to have it, and I think it’s a positive thing from an environmental perspective,’’ he said.

But he ruled out including other incentives environmental groups had wrangled in New York and Illinois — two states that have implemented ratepayer subsidies to bolster nuclear units there along with ramped up investments in renewable energy. In New York, the Cuomo administration agreed to have at least half of the state’s electricity come from renewable energy by 2030 as part of its $8 billion subsidy plan to avert the closing of nuclear units.

“I’m not interested in signing some bill that’s larded up by environmental groups and putting their wishlist on this because they think this is important so we’ll load a bunch of other stuff on there,’’ Christie said. “I won’t deal with that.’’

What about renewables?

In New Jersey, some environmentalists would like to see any nuclear bailout include steep investments in clean, renewable energy. “That’s not being discussed here and that’s part of the problem,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director of ReThink Energy NJ, a coalition promoting clean energy.

No legislation has been made public in New Jersey, but Christie’s comments heightened suspicion among opponents of a bailout that the issue may be fast-tracked in the remaining month or so of the current legislative term.

“We’re going to let Gov. Christie dictate energy policy for the next generation as he leaves office, tying the hands of the next governor?’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "It's shameful."

Completely clean by 2050

Gov.-elect Phil Murphy campaigned on a platform to have 100 percent of the state’s electricity be produced by clean energy by 2050, a goal that will be difficult to meet if the state invests billions of dollars bailing out nuclear power, critics said.

“We need to make investments in clean energy now,’’ said Gilbert, echoing comments by Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand at a legislative hearing earlier this week. “What happens with nuclear now impacts our ability to do a lot of good things.’’

Murphy’s transition office declined to comment on the issue.

Other bailout opponents worried the state could end up handing out lucrative incentives to PSEG that turn out to be unnecessary. “We’ve been here before,’’ said Steven Goldenberg, an attorney representing companies that are large energy users. He referred to $3 billion in stranded costs awarded to the company back in 1999, when PSEG contended its aging plants would not be competitive in a new deregulated energy marketplace. It turned out those plants were the primary driver of the company’s earnings for most of the next decade.

“I would be more concerned about PSEG larding a bill that provides a bailout for plants that will be profitable for years to come,’’ Goldenberg said.

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