Explainer: Clean Energy Program Promotes Use of Wind, Solar and Biofuels

Progress is being made, albeit slowly, but big advances are not likely under the current administration as funding dwindles

small solar array
The state is trying to promote the use of cleaner sources of energy, as well as reduce electric and gas consumption by homeowners and businesses — mirroring efforts in other states. New Jersey is moving to switch from conventional power generation (using coal and natural gas) and from nuclear power plants, which emit no pollution but pose challenges on how to safely dispose of the fuel used to run the units.

The Clean Energy Program tries to encourage a wide range of technologies that do not depend on fossil fuels, which contribute to global climate change. They include solar energy, wind, electricity generated by biofuels (energy sources made from living things), and projects aimed at storing energy generated from intermittent sources, such as solar and wind. Most of those projects are largely funded by a surcharge on customers’ electric and gas bills.

In recent years, the fund to finance those projects has been diminished as lawmakers and the Christie administration have diverted clean energy money to plug holes in state budgets. Nevertheless, clean energy backers and some legislators remain steadfast advocates of the state’s efforts to wean itself off fossil fuels.

Why it is important: The state suffers from some of the most severe air pollution problems in the nation, never once achieving the federal air-quality standard for ground-level ozone, a pollutant that causes respiratory problems, particularly among the young and old. Clean energy advocates argue that promoting new ways of generating electricity and reducing the use of energy will not only be healthy for residents, but also could help create well-paying jobs in a so-called green economy.

What’s working: By far, the biggest success story is the state’s efforts to develop a robust solar industry. New Jersey once was behind only California in the number of solar installations in the state, but has slipped a bit because of a slump in the sector. With passage of legislation to help revive the industry, the sector has rebounded in the past two years.

What’s not working: The state has set a goal of developing 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind in Jersey coastal waters by 2020. So far, not one project has won approval, making it unlikely that this target will be met. The primary reason is that the state has failed to adopt regulations that would allow offshore wind developers to collect money from utility customers to help finance their projects. Some environmentalists and business lobbyists also say the state is not doing enough to promote energy efficiency to cut costs for consumers and others.

How some are trying to ramp up clean energy goals: There is a bill pending in the Legislature that would increase the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources from 22.5 percent in 2020 to 80 percent by 2050. Some lawmakers also are pushing to promote more energy-efficiency projects by establishing a standard to mandate reductions in energy consumption.

Why it makes sense: Besides New Jersey’s longstanding problems with air pollution, the state has established aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. Clean energy advocates argue the long-range targets will never be achieved unless the state switches to clean ways of producing electricity and develops vehicles that do not rely on petroleum to run.

Why it doesn’t make sense: Cost. With natural gas prices steeply dropping, some argue it makes no sense to rely on more expensive ways to generate electricity in a state with some of the highest energy bills in the nation. The boom in production of new natural gas sources in neighboring states, such as Pennsylvania, has lowered heating costs significantly for both consumers and businesses, which also rely on the fuel for many manufacturing processes.

What’s likely to happen: No big changes in energy policy are expected to occur in the near future — a probability even clean energy’s most prominent advocates concede. They are hoping to lay the groundwork for more aggressive steps when a new administration takes office.