Moving NJ to a Clean-Energy Economy: at What Speed, at What Price?

Tom Johnson | February 26, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Participants at NJ Spotlight roundtable raise concerns and assess advantages of renewable energy

Barb Blumenthal, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
With a bill ramping up the state’s reliance on renewable energy working its way through the Legislature, advocates and officials clashed over the pace and cost of moving New Jersey to a clean-energy economy at a NJ Spotlight event in Hamilton.

Those issues are at the forefront of an emerging debate over how the state is going to achieve aggressive targets to have 50 percent of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2030 and at what expense.

That dispute is not limited to the roundtable; in Trenton, a bill (S-877) to establish that goal and to figure out where renewables fit into the state’s energy future – and what role nuclear will play in the next decade – is up for debate. The bill is scheduled for a vote today in the Senate.

”Let’s be honest. It’s going to be very expensive,” said Stefanie Brand, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, referring to the renewable-energy goals. Brand, the primary advocate for consumers and businesses in many energy issues confronting the state, added, “it’s still something we have to do because we can’t have the planet disappear.”

The nuclear bridge

Indeed, there was a consensus among the panelists that New Jersey must transform from an economy heavily dependent on fossil fuels to one driven by solar, offshore wind, and other clean-energy technologies. Nuclear also will be vital as a bridge to that clean-energy economy, panelists said.

“It’s hard,” acknowledged Larry Barth, director of corporate strategies for New Jersey Resources Clean Energy Ventures. “There is going to have a lot of work to be done to move the needle.”

New Jersey now generates about 4 percent of its electricity from renewables, Barth noted. While the price of renewables is coming down, the fact remains they are still more expensive than conventional sources of power, he said.

In a high-cost energy state like New Jersey, shifting to renewables is going to take a lot of political will. “We heard some of that perspective the other day,” said Barth, referring to a contentious legislative hearing where Republican lawmakers repeatedly expressed concerns about the cost of shifting to cleaner fuels, like solar and offshore wind.

The PSEG subsidy

That bill also includes provisions that could give Public Service Enterprise Group $300 million a year to prop up three nuclear plants in South Jersey it operates. Without some kind of financial safety net, the company has threatened to close the units in a couple of years.

But others argued there is a pathway to move to a cleaner energy economy – one that would not cost consumers or businesses any more than they are now paying, if the state continued to rely on conventional power sources for electricity.

Not only is it achievable, but it is affordable, according to Barb Blumenthal, research director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “We see many pathways forward that don’t cost any more money and some that cost less than business as usual for New Jersey,” she said, citing a study by her group.

On the plus side

Others said any conversation about the costs of renewables has to include the benefits – reducing unhealthy air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, jobs created by the green economy, and health benefits, said Nicole Sitaraman, senior manager of public policy for Sunrun, a rooftop solar developer.

“The cost of not doing it is far in excess of any of those costs that we are talking about today,” agreed Lyle Rawlings, president and CEO of Advanced Solar Products, Inc., citing the impact climate change already has had on New Jersey. “The costs of not doing it are enormous.”

The economic benefits of renewables were touted by Rawlings and others, and not just for solar, which employs about 7,000 in the state, but offshore wind, The Murphy administration wants to build 3,500 megawatts of offshore-wind capacity along the Jersey coast, the highest target of any state, according to Ross Tyler, director of development and strategy for Business Network for Offshore Wind.

“There is enough market potential, enough job growth around for everyone,” Tyler said, whose organization is interested in building the supply chain for the string of offshore wind farms proposed along the Eastern Seaboard. “We have demand. We have scale here, which we don’t have in Europe.”

In the end, Brand expects the state to invest heavily in solar, offshore wind, energy efficiency, and other technologies, as well as probably nuclear once again. She offered a cautionary note, however.

“We have to pace this. We can’t do all this at once,’’ Brand said. “The surest way to make sure we don’t meet our goal is to try and do everything at once.’’