For the third time in just four years, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities will have a new president presiding over the agency that regulates how much gas, water, electric, and other utilities can charge to provide their essential services.
BPU President Bob Hanna won approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday afternoon to be a judge in the Superior Court, and later in the day was confirmed by the Senate in the last day of the lame-duck legislative session.
Hanna’s departure is not unexpected, ever since it became clear that his nomination to the Supreme Court by Gov. Chris Christie would not be approved by the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats who have a long-running dispute with the executive branch over appointments to the bench.
Nevertheless his leaving comes at a time when the agency is juggling a host of tough issues. These range from deciding how to encourage utilities to harden the grid to prevent widespread outages from extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy to determining how much of the hundreds of millions of dollars they spent should be recovered from storm restoration efforts.
If approved under current petitions filed by the utilities, the cost to ratepayers could top $5 billion over the next few decades. New Jersey already has some of the highest energy bills in the nation, but the Christie administration has repeatedly vowed to take steps to make the power grid more resilient.
Perhaps more importantly, the new opening raises questions about the turnover at the agency, one already widely viewed as acting very slowly on issues that come before it. Besides two presidents leaving the BPU, several top senior aides have left, including the former executive director, chief of staff and top counsel. BPU Commissioner Jeanne Fox, the commissioner with the most expertise in regulatory issues facing the agency, also is not expected to be reappointed when her term is up this spring.
Many others at the BPU also departed when the former president, Lee Solomon, moved the agency’s headquarters from Newark to Trenton early in the governor’s first term.
“The question is what can make the BPU move faster,’’ said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey and a longtime critic of the cost of energy in the state. “It is one of those agencies — like the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) — that move at a glacial pace.’’
To environmentalists, the biggest problem with the agency is its failure to embrace aggressive clean-energy goals, particularly on the state’s efforts to promote offshore wind farms and scaling back other renewable energy goals.
“The Christie administration has treated the BPU as a revolving door,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “If you want to get anything done on clean energy, it’s hard when you have a new BPU president every couple of years.’’
Lyle Rawlings, a solar developer based in Flemington, agreed. “We’re concerned about the complexity of renewable energy policies and the ability of the BPU to handle it expeditiously,’’ he said.
In New Jersey, the solar sector has gone through a boom-and-bust cycle in the past few years. At one time, it was behind only California in the number of solar installations, but the pace of new solar deployments has slowed dramatically, largely because of a steep drop in prices that owners of the systems earn for the electricity they produce.
The sector has somewhat stabilized after Gov. Chris Christie signed a bipartisan-backed bill to deal with the slump in the industry. In his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hanna said he is proud of how the state has helped stabilize the sector.
At the same time, the state’s efforts to develop offshore wind farms also have faltered, primarily because the agency has been unable to come up with a financing system that would help promote the development of the technology.
“You’re seeing Christie administration policies to subsidize gas plants while they are weakening renewable energy,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.