Senate Panel Wants BPU to Pick up Pace on Developing Offshore Wind Power

Environment and Energy Committee Votes Out bill pushing agency to move ahead on long-stalled Fishermen’s Energy offshore pilot project

Unhappy with a state agency’s lack of action on offshore wind, a Senate committee yesterday ordered the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to approve a small pilot offshore wind project about three miles from Atlantic City.

The action by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee reflected lawmakers’ frustration that no offshore wind farms have been approved by the state four-and-a-half years after passing a bill aimed at making New Jersey the hub of a still developing clean energy technology sector—at least in the United States.

Gov. Chris Christie signed the law and also called for the development of more than 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity along the Jersey coast by 2020 in the state’s Energy Master Plan, a goal now unlikely to be met.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), a big advocate for offshore wind, said it is time to move forward with the projects, noting Christie was at one time, too, a proponent of the technology.

“I think the governor’s ambitions changed,’’ Sweeney said, referring to the expectation that Christie will seek the Republican presidential nomination. “The Koch brothers don’t like wind,’’ he added of the billionaires who are huge donors for Republican candidates.

The bill S-2711, sponsored by Senators Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), is designed to allow a 25-megawatt offshore wind farm to be built by Fishermen’s Energy. The project has been twice rejected by the BPU, which said it would be too costly to ratepayers, who would help subsidize the facility.

Besides requiring the BPU to approve the project, the bill would remove the requirement under the 2010 law that the pilot must pass a net-economic-benefits test before it can move forward.

“The purpose of the bill is to get the BPU out of the way,’’ said Smith, the chairman of the committee. He argued that the pilot project, if built, could help determine whether offshore wind is a cost-effective way of producing electricity.

Bill Wolfe, executive director of New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, lauded the provision dealing with the cost-benefits analysis. “It was not the Legislature’s intent to use the cost-benefits analysis as a barrier to offshore wind,’’ he said.

Paul Gallagher, chief operating officer and general counsel for Fishermen’s Energy, said the project complied with the net-economic benefit, a position supported by the state Division of Rate Counsel. The BPU, however, argued that the project did not.

But some business groups opposed the bill.

“What concerns us is we don’t just know what it will do to energy rates,’’ said Elvin Montero, director of communications for the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, a state with already steep energy costs.

Sarah Bluhm, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, agreed. “What we’re debating is the subsidy ratepayers are going to pay for offshore wind,’’ she said.

Some clean energy advocates disputed that argument.

“All we are asking for is a level playing field,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of New Jersey Clean Ocean Action. “The biggest subsidies in this country are for nuclear and fossil fuels.’’

Besides passing the bill dealing with the Atlantic City pilot project, the committee also approved a resolution (SR-112) urging the BPU to pass long-overdue regulations dealing with offshore wind and energy efficiency.

One of the holdups in developing offshore wind farms is that the agency has yet to establish a financing mechanism that would provide ratepayers’ subsidies for the projects. Without the subsidies, these projects will never get built, according to developers. The regulations were supposed to be adopted in March 2011.

The resolution also pushes the BPU to adopt new standards to increase energy-efficiency projects in New Jersey, a proposal advocates say would reduce electricity and gas consumption and lower bills for consumers.

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