Critics of Energy Master Plan Make Opinions Heard at Public Hearing

BPU argues plan is delivering on its promise, but speakers fault state for relying too much on natural gas, too little on renewable energy

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Richard Mroz, president of the state's Board of Public Utilities
The state’s energy policies are working just fine, according to the Christie administration. They have led to lower bills for customers, cleaner ways to produce power, and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, officials said.

But at a public hearing yesterday on New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan, most of those who spoke criticized those policies, saying the state depends too much on fossil fuels to meet energy demands, falls short in promoting renewable energy, and does too little to curb energy use.

With rapid and significant changes roiling the energy sector, the four-year-old plan is the subject of intense debate; how well is the state adapting to it, and how successful are efforts to make the power grid more resilient in the wake of extreme storms.

To New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Richard Mroz, the state is making good progress in achieving most of the goals outlined in the current plan. New Jersey now has the lowest prices in the nation for residential retail natural gas, Mroz said. It also has dropped from the state with the fourth-highest retail electricity prices to the tenth in just five years, he said.

That assessment drew a skeptical response from Stefanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, who questioned how that conclusion was reached. While acknowledging New Jersey’s ranking has dropped, its electricity prices have not gone down, Brand said.

“Instead, other states have surpassed us with higher prices,’’ she said. “It would be foolish and not entirely accurate to view our state as one that is no longer subject to high energy costs.’’

Mroz conceded the state has more to achieve. “More needs to be done to bring down the price for all customers,’’ he said.

The hearing at Seton Hall Law School in Newark was the first of three to be held by the BPU to get input on how the plan should be updated and what the priorities should be.

But many argued that the current plan is flawed, and also suffers from a lack of commitment from the administration that’s needed if it is to achieve some of its stated goals, particularly dealing with energy efficiency and development of offshore wind farms.

“The Energy Master Plan shouldn’t be an update; it needs an overhaul,’’ said Lyle
Rawlings, who owns a Flemington solar company and is president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association.

Others criticized the state’s efforts to curb energy consumption through energy-efficiency programs, which they said have been hurt by the diversion of $1 billion in clean-energy funds to other uses.

The Christie administration has blurred a distinction between energy savings from energy-efficiency programs and lower power system loads due to other causes, according to Franklin Neubauer, a principal at Core Metrix.

“Major clean energy investments in response to global warming are more urgent than ever, but New Jersey continues to overlook energy efficiency, which is the lowest-cost resource, in favor of natural gas,’’ Neubauer said.

That is unlikely to happen unless the state revises how utilities are regulated. Dennis Wilson, a solar and energy-efficiency proponent, said utilities need new incentives to invest in energy efficiency. The current system rewards utilities for how much gas and electricity they deliver to their customers, so reducing consumption hurts their profits, making it more difficult for them to maintain the reliability of the grid.

Joseph Accardo, deputy general counsel for PSEG Services Corp., said the state should address the disincentives that harm utilities when customers reduce their usage.

A recurring criticism voiced at the hearing revolved around the state’s promotion of natural gas — both through support for new power plants using the fuel and a plethora of new gas pipelines that cut through open space and preserved farmland.

The next public hearing is scheduled for tomorrow Room 11 in the Statehouse in Trenton, beginning at 1 p.m. and ending at 5 p.m.