Down to the Wire: Controversial Clean-Energy Bills Scheduled for Vote

Tom Johnson | April 12, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Vote before Assembly and Senate may be imminent, but advocates and opponents continue to quarrel — especially over nuclear subsidy measure

state house
After months of wrangling, backroom negotiations, and delays, lawmakers appear poised today to pass a package of bills that chart a sharply different future for energy policy in New Jersey.

Both the Assembly and the Senate are expected to vote on three bills, each controversial in its own way, but the most contentious by far is legislation that would subsidize three nuclear plants in South Jersey owned by Public Service Enterprise Group.

The bill (S-2313), pushed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, could lead to all of the state’s ratepayers forking over $300 million a year on their electric bills to keep the plants from closing prematurely. If that happened, thousands of jobs would be lost and energy bills would rise, according to proponents of the bill.

Critics had another take: “Delivering hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars to a profitable corporation is not sensible energy policy, it is extortion,’’ said Lena Smith, Food & Water Watch advocate. “It is astonishing that Trenton lawmakers are even considering granting this outrageous handout.’’

Another blow to the pocketbook

Other bills also are expected to hit ratepayers in the pocketbook, although to what extent is still not clear. The biggest impact will come from legislation (S-2314), a measure that ramps up the state’s reliance on renewable energy and efforts to reduce energy use.

Both rely on ratepayer subsidies, which some project will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, to achieve their goals, although the bills include a cap to try to limit any spikes for consumers. The legislation, backed by many environmental groups, sets a target of having 50 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable energy by 2030. About 5 percent of that power is now generated from such sources.

The front of the pack

In a blog post, Dale Bryk of the Natural Resources Defense Council described the bill as catapulting New Jersey to the front of pack of states in the clean-energy arena. “This effort is debunking Washington’s patently false line that any effort to protect the environment is a job-killing energy tax,’’ Bryk wrote.

But some environmentalists are opposed to all of the legislation, including a bill (S-1217) that would promote a small pilot offshore wind project across from Atlantic City. Primarily, they view the subsidy for the nuclear power units as undermining efforts to advance clean energy in the state.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the clean-energy bills “green cover’’ to win backing for the nuclear subsidy. That subsidy, he and others argued, is not needed since even the company has acknowledged the plants are now profitable, although they may dip into the red within a couple of years.

‘’A nuclear bailout will ice out our transition to a clean-energy future,’’ argued Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “It’s a bad deal for ratepayers and the environment.’’

Michael Jennings, a spokesman for PSEG, disputed that argument. “Throughout the many hours of public debate, it was made clear that the financial problems facing the plants are real and there would be severe consequences for New Jersey if the plants were to close,’’ he said.

If the plants close, economists have projected energy bills will jump $400 million a year, Jennings said. In addition, the power from the carbon-free plants would be replaced by units that would boost the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions by 14 million tons annually, according to Jennings.

The bill, however, is opposed by a diverse group of business interests who argue it will drive manufacturers out of New Jersey by leading to new spikes in energy bills. For some companies, those increases could range from $500,000 a year to $1 million, according to Amy Goldsmith, Clean Water Action State director.

Meanwhile, 11 environmental groups wrote a letter to the governor and legislative leaders urging them not to pass a bill that would direct the state Board of Public Utilities to approve a pilot offshore-wind project by Fishermen’s Energy.