Board of Public Utilities President Lee Solomon, who oversaw dramatic changes in New Jersey’s energy policies over the past two years, is stepping down from his post. His move, however, is unlikely to lead to any major changes in the effort to drive down high energy bills.
The state is expected to press its fight with federal regulators to build new power plants in New Jersey, despite Solomon’s departure by the end of the year to return to his job as a judge of the Superior Court.
Solomon, who has held the top position at the BPU for the past two years, will be replaced by Robert Hanna, the current director of the New Jersey Division of Law. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Hanna worked with Gov. Chris Christie when the latter was U.S. Attorney in Newark.
Both nominations are subject to approval by the Senate, which the governor said yesterday he hopes happens in the lame duck legislative session. In announcing the changes, Christie made it clear that he is committed to getting new generation built in the state, a strategy Solomon has strongly advocated. His efforts, thus far, have been thwarted in the courts and before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
With New Jersey residents and businesses paying some of the highest electricity bills in the country, the administration enacted a law that would funnel ratepayer subsidies to three power plant developers to build nearly 2,000 megawatts of new capacity. If built, proponents say it would lower electricity prices and make New Jersey businesses more competitive with companies in neighboring states.
The program, however, has been contested by incumbent power suppliers and the federal agency, which has adopted new rules that make it unlikely the three power plant projects will move forward. During his tenure at the BPU, Solomon has been a vocal critic of FERC, often criticizing its actions as contributing to the steep energy costs in New Jersey.
Christie said the administration would not relent on its efforts to build in-state generation, which he argued could bring down electric prices. “I’m very committed to that program,’’ he said during a Statehouse press conference. “I think FERC is wrong.’’
Solomon, who presided over a revamping of the state Energy Master Plan that scaled back some of its renewable energy goals, said he had made it clear to the governor when he accepted the BPU position that he wanted to return to the bench. Christie said the timing made sense because Solomon could be approved as a judge before the “silly season’’ began, referring to the upcoming 2013 election.
Nonetheless, other factors played into Solomon’s departure. Under the judicial pension system, a judge who leaves the bench and returns within two years retains his or her pension benefits. If more than two years go by, he or she is treated as a new member of the retirement system.
Solomon’s leaving the BPU has been rumored for several months, with some speculating that he would be a likely candidate to fill one of two New Jersey Supreme Court positions expected to open up next year, an issue that came up in the press conference.
“I think Lee Solomon is somebody who any governor looking to fill a Republican seat on the Supreme Court would consider,” Christie said when asked about the likelihood. “I’m certainly not counting him in; I’m certainly not counting him out.’’
As president of the BPU, Solomon won praise from business interests for his efforts to get new power plants built and to reduce surcharges on utility bills that pay for clean energy programs.
“He’s done a good job,’’ said Bob Marshall, of the New Jersey Energy Coalition, citing his continuing battles with FERC, which has gotten a lot of attention from the industry and energy analysts. “He’s got a lot accomplished in two years. They’ll miss him.’’
Christie described Solomon as a pro-consumer BPU president who put the interests of consumers above those of the utilities. “Believe me, I’ve heard from the utilities,’’ the Governor said.
Others said his departure will not mean big changes in New Jersey’s current policies. “This administration seems committed to finally change the dynamics and to start to get lower power prices in New Jersey,’’ said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey. “Lee Solomon set a hell of a course.
Clean energy advocates, however, were more critical.
“Under BPU President Lee Solomon and Gov. Christie, we have seen the dismantling of some of the most successful clean energy programs in the country,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “They have cut back our renewable energy goals and subsidized fossil fuels.’’
Hanna takes over BPU at a time of much turmoil, particularly in New Jersey’s solar energy market, where the prices of certificates earned by owners of solar systems have dropped steeply, a worrisome development that some argue could stall investment in the sector. The state agency also is working out new rules that would subsidize the development of offshore wind farms through ratepayer bills.
The BPU has yet to adopt the final version of a draft energy plan, a goal that is expected to occur before the end of the year. “Some of it is not done yet,’’ Solomon said, “but it will be up to Bob Hanna to get us across the finish line.’’
Prior to his appointment by Christie as director of the Division of Law in January 2008, Hanna served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, including service in the civil and frauds division. Many of those years were served during Christie’s tenure as U.S. attorney.
During his time at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Hanna successfully prosecuted a case that enabled a local union in Atlantic City to rid itself of the influence of organized crime. He also was the lead prosecutor in a case involving the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ and the major pharmaceutical concern, Bristol-Myers Squibb. He is a graduate of Manhattan College and the Fordham University School of Law.