Most times, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is about as sleepy an agency as there is in Trenton — slow moving, often opaque, and rarely making significant enough decisions to draw much attention, or even less likely, controversy.
Not anymore. With Gov. Phil Murphy advocating an aggressive clean-energy agenda, the quasi-judicial body finds itself on the political hot seat. It is juggling a range of policies that could vault the state into a leadership role in a rapidly changing energy sector.
At the same time, it is overseeing a massive investment by the state’s utilities to modernize an aging power grid, something that policymakers here and across the nation agree needs to happen for more resiliency and reliability in an era of climate change. All these developments could leave consumers saddled with billions of dollars in new costs on their utility bills.
Six months into his new role as president of BPU, Joseph Fiordaliso sounds like he would not have it any other way.
“I have to start with one word — excitement. It’s exciting,’’ said Fiordaliso, a commissioner for the past 13 years before being appointed to head the agency by Murphy in January. ‘’We’re really the focal point of the Governor’s agenda as far as clean energy is concerned.’’
Must reform solar-energy program
The agenda is ambitious — both in the short run and the long term. By 2030, the governor wants to develop 3,500 megawatts of offshore-wind energy. And within a couple of years, the agency must figure out a new way to pay for solar energy, or a program that has spurred more than 90,000 installations in New Jersey could crash. The state’s utilities also must come up with new programs to have customers reduce gas and electric consumption.
That’s hardly all. Sometime in the next year, Public Service Enterprise Group will be knocking on the agency’s door, seeking approval for $300 million in subsidies to prop up its nuclear power plants in South Jersey. The governor also wants a new Energy Master Plan by next July.
Fiordaliso, a native of Newark who now lives in Livingston, believes the governor’s goals are achievable. “We’re going to get to where we have to get,’’ he said. “We don’t have the time for things to lag.’’
Asked about how the agency is going to do so without a huge impact to ratepayers, Fiordaliso argued that just as the state has seen prices for solar energy drop over the past decade, prices for other renewable energy — including offshore wind — continue to drop.
“We are always looking at these programs with the ratepayer in mind,’’ he said. “That’s why we are going take this step by step so we move prudently as we go.’’
Easing impact of climate change
There are benefits to the green energy program as well, he argued, noting that offshore wind, solar and other technologies assist with economic development. New Jersey’s solar sector employs about 7,000 people, according to recent reports.
Moreover, Fiordaliso said the state has an obligation to do all it can to ease the impact of climate change. “If the scientists are correct — and I believe them — we have a very difficult future ahead of us,’’ he said.
One of the more pressing issues facing the state is offshore wind. If New Jersey does not move more swiftly, developers fear they may not be able to qualify for federal tax incentives that could reduce the cost of their projects by about 12 percent. With the tax credit due to expire by the end of 2019, developers say it is imperative that New Jersey start accepting applications for projects by the end of the year.
“Our goal is to do the solicitation ASAP,’’ Fiordaliso said. On Wednesday, the board is scheduled to vote on a critical component of the offshore-wind program — a funding mechanism that will funnel ratepayer money to developers to help make the projects economically viable to Wall Street.
To address other issues involving offshore wind, the agency is waiting for the State Treasurer to sign off on a Request-For-Proposal to hire a consultant to develop a strategic plan for offshore wind in New Jersey.
Other consultants are expected to be brought on board to help the agency develop regulations and programs dealing with energy efficiency, energy storage, and other aspects of the BPU’s regulatory framework. The utilities will be charged to fund those hires.
Despite the shift to clean energy, Fiordaliso said natural gas and nuclear power will bridge the gap to achieving 100 percent renewable energy generation. “We are going to need, as I see it, something to get to clean energy,’’ he said.