State Considers Trust Fund to Energize Clean-Energy Tech Companies

Stimulating industry sector could help revitalize NJ’s ‘green’ economy, contribute to reduction in greenhouse gases

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The state could be setting up a new trust fund to jump-start clean-energy technology companies and other ventures in the sector with loans and loan guarantees.

The proposal, under a bill (S-684) moving forward in the Senate, is viewed as a way to stimulate the state’s clean-energy economy, which advocates say is crucial to helping New Jersey achieve ambitious goals for transforming the energy industry and reducing emissions that contribute to global warming.

The legislation is being pushed as clean-energy proponents lobby for the state to ramp up its reliance on renewable energy, a step they say will create well-paying jobs in a new “green’’ economy.

Few argue with the concept, but the bill’s proposal to finance the trust fund through a surcharge on customers’ electric and gas bills raised concerns from the business community and the state Division of Rate Counsel.

The surcharge currently raises hundreds of millions of dollars a year to pay for a variety of programs, but mainly for clean-energy initiatives and an assistance program to help low- and moderate-income families pay their utility bills.

For homeowners, the surcharge is fairly modest, amounting to about $73 a year on their electric bills and $89 for gas. For business customers, the cost can be much higher — given that it is based on the amount of gas or electricity used.

“We’re concerned about the impact on the ratepayer,’’ said Sarah Bluhm, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, noting that the state has some of the highest energy costs in the nation. “We’re very concerned about raising the SBC (societal benefits charge),’’ she said.

Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, agreed, saying the state has failed to spend all the money it raises from the surcharge.

“We need a larger discussion on the SBC. It is sorely needed,’’ he said.

The surcharge fund also has been repeatedly raided by the Christie administration and Legislature to plug holes in the state budget, taking away money supposed to be targeted for programs like low-income energy assistance. Next year’s proposed state budget by the administration calls for $112 million in surcharges to be used to pay energy bills at state buildings and for NJ Transit.

The Division of Rate Counsel urged legislators to place a cap on how much money the new clean-energy technology trust fund could raise through the surcharge, but the Senate Environment and Energy Committee deferred acting on the request when it voted the bill out of committee earlier this week.

Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), however, said he would consider making an amendment to the bill before it comes up for a vote in the Senate. “We need to work with staff to get some language to control the costs,’’ he said.

If passed, the new fund would provide loans and financing to targeted investments in clean-energy research and promote manufacturing for new and existing technologies, as well as to institutions of higher education to develop clean-energy curriculum. The fund also would furnish investments to promote economic self-sufficiency for low- and moderate-income communities.