With Little Fuss or Fanfare, Legislature Passes Clean-Energy Bills

Murphy and Sweeney both get what they want, but how will consumers feel about shouldering the burden of more subsidies?

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex)
In a day absent of the drama that enveloped the issues for the past few months, the Legislature gave quick and easy approval to bills that could ask ratepayers to subsidize nuclear power and to ante up even more dollars for renewable energy.

With virtually no debate, both houses easily approved a bill (S-2313) that could provide $300 million annually to Public Service Enterprise Group to keep its three nuclear plants in South Jersey open. The vote was 29-7 in the Senate; 60-10-1 in the Assembly.

The vote marked a significant win for PSEG, which spent the past year lobbying legislators for the subsidy in a campaign in which the energy conglomerate spent more than $2 million pushing for what it called a safety net for its plants. Nuclear plants across the country are economically challenged because of cheap natural-gas prices.

“This is a good day for New Jersey and for those who care about the state’s air quality and economy,’’ said Michael Jennings, a spokesman for PSEG, after the votes. “Collectively, the benefit of preserving nuclear far outweigh the costs,’’ he added.

A companion bill (A-3723) to revamp and expand the state’s solar program also won final legislative approval. Its passage won cheers from some environmentalists because it ramps up significantly the state’s reliance on renewable energy — requiring 50 percent of its electricity to come from solar, wind, and other renewables by 2030.

Top priorities for top Democrats

The issues emerged as top priorities for the two most powerful men in Trenton —Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney. The renewable-energy bill puts New Jersey on an aggressive path to fulfilling the governor’s clean-energy agenda and having 100 percent clean energy by 2050. The nuclear bill preserves plants key to the economy of South Jersey.

It also puts Murphy in the position of signing into law measures that consumer advocates and some lobbyists predict will dramatically increase energy costs for consumers and businesses in a state already among the most expensive in the nation for those expenditures.

“It’s up to the governor to protect consumers from a money grab,’’ said Amy Goldsmith, state director of Clean Water Action, one of the environmental groups that had lobbied against the nuclear subsidy.

Critics of the nuclear bill argued unsuccessfully that PSEG never proved its plants are economically challenged and deserve a subsidy. Backers of the bill countered that the financial incentives will only be awarded after a thorough review of the plant’s finances by the state Board of Public Utilities.

“What would happen if we don’t do this?’’ asked Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill. With closure of the plants, he predicted energy-supply issues, a rise in prices to replace the power lost from the nuclear units, which supply nearly 40 percent of the state’s power.

In the long run, the other clean-energy measure may have longer, and more lasting, impacts on the state by increasing mandates to rely on solar, by requiring utilities to become more aggressive in reducing customers’ energy use, and by setting an ambitious target for developing energy storage, a technology critical to making solar and wind energy more reliable.

“This bill will give the state a much needed roadmap to slash energy waste, boost renewables, and protect public health,’’ said Mary Barber, director of New Jersey Clean Energy for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Not all environmentalists liked the clean energy bill. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued a cap designed to control increases in costs to consumers could undermine efforts to achieve greater reliance on renewables.

The new costs to ratepayers for all of the mandates in the clean-energy bill are harder to gauge, but some have projected it could run as much as $300 million or more.

Finally, legislative approval also was given to a bill (S-1217) aimed at boosting prospects for a pilot, 24-megawatt offshore-wind project three miles from Atlantic City. The Christie administration blocked the Fishermen’s Energy project on two occasions, but it has enjoyed strong legislative support in the past, and again yesterday. It goes to Murphy, too, for consideration.