Contractors Turn Out to Support Clean Energy Program

Plan to siphon off $158 million raises concerns about layoffs

If not for New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program, Ed Hutchinson figures his heating and air conditioning business would be a lot less robust. He might even employ up to 60 fewer people than the 200 now working for Hutchinson Mechanical Services in Cherry Hill.

That’s why he and at least a dozen other contractors showed up in Trenton today to protest deep cuts in the program, an initiative that gives rebates and other incentives to homeowners and businesses to dramatically curb how much energy they use.

“We should further invest here because we’re putting people to work,” Hutchinson told the Board of Public Utilities commissioners at the state Department of Environmental Protection building. He was speaking at a hearing on diverting $158 million in funds from the clean energy program to help plug a hole in the current state budget.

While many said they understood the state’s precarious financial position, virtually everyone who spoke urged the board to look elsewhere to balance the state budget. Beyond the clean energy funds, the Christie administration also siphoned away $128 million from the Retail Margin Fund, which was designed to help build more energy efficient power plants. It took another $65 million from a fund to combat greenhouse gases.

The hearing revolved around a straw proposal put together by clean energy staffers to downsize the state’s energy efficiency program and its efforts to promote renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind power. The BPU is expected to make a final decision later this spring.

Bruce Grossman, a program manager for South Jersey Gas, said reducing incentives in the energy efficiency program would have a “chilling effect on economic momentum in the marketplace” stemming from the energy conservation efforts.

Grace Sica of the Sierra Club of New Jersey agreed. “We’re setting New Jersey’s green economy to flounder,” she said.

Several contractors echoed Hutchinson, saying the money invested in the clean energy program has helped them put the unemployed to work at well-paying jobs with health benefits. “This program is working excellent,” said John Conforti, of Air Group in Whippany, another heating and air conditioning company.

During the hearing, some argued the current budget crisis ought to afford the state an opportunity to re-evaluate the entire program and redirect resources to where New Jersey gets the biggest bang for the buck.

Sara Bluhm, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said more money needs to be invested in commercial and industrial projects where experience has shown that for every dollar invested in energy efficiency there is a $11 return on investment, compared with a $4 return on residential projects.

Others said the state should not siphon away any of the dollars because it sends the wrong signal both to the fledgling green economy sector and to homeowners. “It sends a signal that maybe we are not as serious about clean energy as we say we are,” said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey.