Voters oppose handing out financial subsidies to the state’s nuclear power plants, a new poll found.
In a poll commissioned by the New Jersey Petroleum Council, 69 percent of those surveyed said they disagreed with giving subsidies to nuclear power, an incentive being sought by Public Service Enterprise Group, the operator of three nuclear units in South Jersey.
The results suggest the company faces a tough task convincing lawmakers to award ratepayer-funded subsidies to their power plants, which PSEG executives have threatened to close because they may start losing money due to stiff competition from generating units fueled by natural gas.
The plight of nuclear power has emerged as a national dispute as a handful of plants have closed prematurely around the country, while New York and Illinois have put together lucrative financial incentives to avert nuclear units from shutting down in their states.
For the past several months, PSEG has been quietly lobbying legislators, policymakers, and others for help keeping its three New Jersey plants operating. No bill has yet been introduced, but there has been widespread speculation the issue could be taken up by the Legislature in the lame-duck session later this year.
Jim Benton, executive director for the council, argued government should not be picking winners and losers in the electricity market, especially at a time when consumers and businesses are benefitting from low natural gas prices.
“Unfortunately, some would like our legislators to put these benefits at risk by providing a financial subsidy to the nuclear plants in the state at the expense of New Jersey consumers,’’ Benton said.
A new coalition
The council is part of a new coalition of business, environmentalists, and consumer advocates that are opposing efforts by New Jersey to pass incentives similar to those in New York and Illinois. In the former, the subsidies paid by ratepayers amount to about half a billion dollars annually.
The poll found that a majority of respondents opposed subsidizing the plants regardless of party affiliation: Democrats (66 percent), Republicans (75 percent), and Independents (72 percent). A majority of those surveyed also said electricity prices will be lower with competition, not government intervention.
Asked to respond to the poll, Michael Jennings, a spokesman for PSEG, noted the state’s nuclear plants provide nearly half of the electricity in New Jersey, and virtually all of the carbon-free electricity.
“We know New Jersey’s elected leaders recognize the important role PSEG’s nuclear plants play in our energy resiliency and reliability and will always guard the best interests of New Jersey’s families and businesses,’’ he said.
But Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, countered that the poll “is a clear wake-up call that the public is against a nuclear bailout.’’
With no legislation yet made public, some foes of subsidies are beginning to question whether the issue will come up in the lame-duck session. When asked about it, Jennings dodged the issue.
“We can’t prejudge what policymakers will do and it’s premature to discuss a solution,’’ Jennings said. “But we will continue to educate New Jersey policymakers on the economic pressure facing the nuclear industry.’’
Privately, some lawmakers have questioned whether the state can hand out financial incentives when the plants are still making money, a fact PSEG has acknowledged. The company says it is operating the units under contracts made at a time when market prices were much higher than current prices.
But some environmentalists opposed the subsidies because they fear it will shift investment away from renewable energy, like solar and offshore wind.
“If we subsidize nukes and we have cheap natural gas, renewables will be squeezed out,’’ argued Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.