Stay the Course, Advocates Argue, on NJ’s Aggressive Clean Energy Goals

At final public stakeholder hearing on Energy Master Plan, state urged to maintain or increase clean energy commitments

If the Christie administration has any doubts about the state’s aggressive clean energy goals, they are not shared by environmentalists and alternative energy advocates.

Both groups turned out in force Friday for the last public stakeholder meeting on the administration’s proposal to revisit New Jersey’s energy master plan. They voiced strong support for the plan’s twin goals of increasing the renewable energy use by 20 percent and reducing energy consumption by the same amount by the start of the next decade.

If anything, the supporters of the plan suggested the state ratchet up efforts to turn to greener ways of producing electricity. The two-year-old plan, the first revision of the state’s energy master plan in more than a decade, is being reexamined by the new administration. Concerns are growing about the cost of achieving the proposed goals and the diversion of more than $400 million in energy funds to balance the state budget.

The state is expected to issue a draft of the new plan by the end of the year, at which time it will be the subject of new public hearings.

Retaining Aggressive Goals

For the most part, most of those who spoke out at a hearing in the Statehouse Annex urged the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) to retain the aggressive goals.

Erich Stephens, a vice president at Offshore MW, a company interested in building an offshore wind farm off the New Jersey coast, proposed the state increase its commitment to offshore wind. Adding 300 megawatts of capacity each year is not unrealistic, he said, beginning in 2016. Instead of the 1,000 megawatts of offshore energy envisioned by the current plan, Stephens urged the goal be increased to 3,000 megawatts by 2026.

Terry Sobolewski, business development manager for SunPower, sounded a similar refrain in talking about the state’s solar goals, which he described as modest in the energy master plan. “Solar and renewable energy can contribute much more than the current plan envisions,” he said.

Noting that nearly 200 megawatts of solar capacity has been built in New Jersey in the past decade, Sobolewski said it is one of the few segments of the state economy that is growing. The solar sector alone has created 3,000 jobs here, he said.

Amy Hansen, policy analyst for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, expressed concern that the state might weaken its clean energy efforts by reducing the societal benefit charge (SBC), a surcharge on gas and electric customers’ bills that has been the primary financing mechanism. SBCs enabled New Jersey to rank second behind only California in the number of solar installations. Citing the record heat of this past summer, Hansen warned, “Now is not the time to back away from our goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Financing Renewable Energy

Others, however, told the agency it ought to look at how it finances renewable energy, citing the steep cost of solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs), as an example. The certificates are earned by owners of solar systems for each megawatt of electricity generated and are ultimately paid for by electric utility customers.

Farley Hunter, speaking for the New Jersey Large Energy Users Coalition, noted his company put in a solar system at its facility. Because of the current high value of SRECs, which sell for upward of $640 on the spot market, the system paid for itself within four years. Over the next 11 years, Hunter said the system will earn upward of $1 million, if the price remains that high.

“I wonder why the state would allow ratepayers to continue to pay for a system, which has already been paid for,” Hunter said. “To me, that is money I should not be getting.”

In addition, others advocated various technologies, including nuclear power, combined heat and power and waste-to-energy plants that convert trash into electricity, all of which were suggested as supplying a new source of electricity with fewer or no greenhouse gas emissions, compared with traditional fossil-fired fuel plants.