Draft Energy Master Plan Credits Lower Prices on Increased Use of Natural Gas

Environmentalists disappointed that plan doesn’t boost renewable-energy goals, dismisses offshore wind outright

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In an upbeat update of the state’s Energy Master Plan, the Christie administration touts its effectiveness in reducing energy prices for consumers and businesses, an achievement it credits to an increasing reliance on natural gas.

The plan claimed that the state’s vibrant and robust natural-gas infrastructure — which has seen nearly $1 billion in investment over the past several years, as well as the building of new gas-fired power plants — has allowed New Jersey to take advantage of low fuel prices and decreasing energy costs.

But that trend, which the update hopes to continue, is precisely the opposite direction that many critics of the 2011 plan had argued New Jersey should take. They called for less reliance on fossil fuels like natural gas and an increased commitment to cleaner sources of energy like solar and offshore wind.

“This plan is clearly a victory lap for the Christie administration’s love of natural gas,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “In the face of massive public opposition to new pipelines, the Board of Public Utilities goes double down on natural gas.’’

The updated plan, released late Friday, makes no changes to the state’s renewable-energy goals, which aims to have 22.5 percent of its electricity come from such sources by 2021. Fifteen percent of the state’s electricity is produced by renewable energy, but only four percent is produced here in New Jersey.

In hearings before the agency, as well as in the Legislature, clean-energy advocates are trying to ramp up how much of the state’s electricity should come from renewables. One bill, approved by a Senate committee, recommends that 80 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewables by 2050.

The updated plan forecasts no such radical departure, instead building on the success of promoting natural gas as a way to lower energy bills. Since 2011, residential electric bills have declined by 3 percent, the plan said. Instead of the fourth-highest electric costs, New Jersey now ranks 10th highest in the nation.

“This is progress,’’ the plan noted. “New Jersey should continue to pursue measures that will drive down prices even further — especially future costs with building significant transmission infrastructure will place upward pressure on prices.’’

[related]BPU President Richard Mroz noted energy is a vital tool for economic growth and job creation.

“This update shows that Gov. Christie’s strategies in the 2011 state Energy Master Plan are producing strong results and moving the state towards the goal of reducing energy costs from being among the nation’s highest and making them competitive to costs in other regions and states,’’ Mroz said.

But Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with Glenrock Associates in New York City, argued that New Jersey’s experience isn’t all that unique.

“Lower natural-gas prices are probably instrumental in driving down prices not only for New Jersey, but nationwide,’’ Patterson said. “The trend has been investment away from coal and nuclear to natural gas. That’s been the fuel of choice for traditional reliable investment by far.’’

Beyond the reliance on natural gas, clean-energy advocates are upset that the state is not increasing its investment in renewables. In fact, the update paints a pessimistic outlook for development of offshore wind, citing its costs and technological challenges.

“While the future may bring change, offshore wind is not economically viable at this time,’’ the plan concluded. At one time, the state hoped to develop 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind farms along the Jersey coast by 2020. Earlier this month, two wind developers paid close to $2 million to buy leases from the federal government for wind farms off the Jersey coast.

“Really, this plan writes off wind,’’ O’Malley said.

Others criticized the plan for talking about making the state’s energy grid more resilient yet never once mentioning climate change and global warming, particularly when other states are emphasizing renewables as a cleaner source of energy.

“The world has changed since the last plan, but they are staying with the status quo,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “In a state that has been devastated by climate change impacts, we should be working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’’