Clean Energy Advocates Fear Rollback of Goals

Concern that energy master plan could undo '20 years of progress'

With hearings scheduled to begin next week on a revamped draft energy master plan, clean energy advocates and a prominent lawmaker yesterday called for increasing New Jersey’s efforts to promote solar power and energy efficiency, rather than scale back those goals.

Unhappy with the plan’s lukewarm endorsement of New Jersey’s aggressive solar targets, they urged the public to come out and fight to retain various programs they believe may be curtailed or eliminated.

“Without a large turnout for these hearings, we fear the energy master plan will be adopted, undoing 20 years of environmental progress,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, at a Statehouse press conference.

The plan, overhauled by the Christie administration and released in June, backs away from a goal targeting 2020 as the year by which 30 percent of the state’s energy would be generated by renewable sources. It also reduces a target to cut energy consumption by 20 percent by the same year.

New Front in Policy Fight

With three hearings over the next month, the plan is emerging as a new battleground in the fight over energy policy between the administration and Democratic-controlled Legislature. In recent months, Democrats have criticized and sought, so far unsuccessfully, to keep the administration from pulling out of a regional initiative to curb greenhouse gas emissions, as well to take more aggressive action to prevent drilling for natural gas in neighboring Pennsylvania over concerns it could pollute drinking water in both states.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, citing a study by the Brookings Institute, said 26,000 green jobs were created in New Jersey between 2003 and 2010. “Who, among any of us, is not about creating new jobs?” he asked.

“This energy master plan will impede that progress and the continued creation of those green jobs,” said McKeon, who plans to hold a joint hearing on the revised plan with the Senate Environment and Energy Committee in August. “This plan is short-sighted.”

Last week, BPU President Lee Solomon castigated critics of the state’s solar efforts, saying their argument has little merit given the rapid rate of solar installations, which in June surpassed 40 megawatts — an all-time monthly record.

With more than solar 8,000 installations, New Jersey is second behind only California. The solar market is growing because of hefty subsidies from ratepayers, a situation the administration is seeking to change by scaling back surcharges on customers’ bills, eliminating rebates for smaller residential projects, and emphasizing larger, utility-scale projects that reduce costs through economies of scale.

That approach is opposed by some in the solar industry. “Investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, particularly distributed solar energy, generate several times more local jobs than investments in nuclear or fossil-fuel generation,” said Dennis Wilson, president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry trade group.

Beyond scaling back the state’s renewable targets, critics of the plan also faulted it for pushing for the building of more natural gas plants and acknowledging the need to rely on nuclear power for the foreseeable future.

“We need citizens to show up at these hearings and remind the Governor that New Jersey has some of the worst air pollution in the nation,’’ said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “It’s time to ramp up our efforts to promote clean energy instead of increasing our unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels.”