Critics Contend State’s Draft Energy Master Plan Won’t Slow Climate Change

Tom Johnson | July 18, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Enviros came out in droves for Murphy. Now they’re saying his draft plan is too soft on natural gas projects, too reliant on nuclear power

Credit: Creative Commons
natural gas
The state’s draft Energy Master Plan’s failure to impose a moratorium on new natural-gas projects is likely to jeopardize the Murphy administration’s efforts to address the urgency of the climate-change crisis, clean-energy advocates said yesterday.

In the first public hearing on the plan, many speakers also questioned how it defines clean energy, saying the draft could open up the state to more natural-gas projects and increased use of garbage incinerators, as well as continued reliance on nuclear power until 2050 — well beyond when the licenses for the three plants expire.

The recurring criticism could create a significant rift between the environmental community, which largely supported Gov. Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial bid based on his pledge to commit to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, and the administration, which is trying to determine how to achieve that goal.

NJ can’t shake the nuclear habit

It also raises the question of how realistic the administration’s commitment to clean energy is, given that it’s banking on ratepayer-subsidized nuclear power to provide up to 32 percent of the state’s electricity until midcentury — at which point New Jersey projects that it will rely on renewable energy for half its power.

The remaining power may end up coming from natural gas, based on the administration’s new definition of clean energy as carbon neutral, said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “We are not moving forward, we are moving backward,’’ he said.

That, in a nutshell, reflected most of the comments during the three-hour morning session of the hearing. Speakers repeatedly questioned why the plan does not address the climate crisis with more urgency, wondering how the state can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent below 2005 levels without a moratorium on new fossil-fuel projects.

Hitting customers in their checkbooks

Stefanie Brand, director of the Office of Rate Counsel
New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel director Stefanie Brand argued both the increased reliance on subsidized nuclear power and the carbon-neutrality provisions could make customer bills unaffordable. The state this spring approved subsidies of $300 million a year to keep the three nuclear plants open after huge lobbying pressure from Public Service Enterprise Group.

“This is a wildly inaccurate and problematic assumption that is likely to make our path forward much more expensive,’’ Brand said in her written statement, not voiced because of a four-minute limitation on the hundreds of speakers at the hearing.

In crafting a new plan, Brand told the staff of the Board of Public Utilities that customer affordability ought to be the central goal of the document, noting that 40 percent of Americans still struggle to pay their monthly bills.

Along those lines, the new definition of carbon neutral will be factored into the annual power auction conducted by the BPU to provide electricity to the vast majority of customers in New Jersey. “This is a very bad idea,’’ she said, suggesting it would lead to much higher rates for utility customers.

Draft plan has its fans

Others were more enthusiastic about the plan. Scott Weiner, a former BPU president and CEO of a renewable-energy and storage company, called it a “breathtaking and holistic’’ vision of New Jersey’s energy future.

But others described the plan as a missed opportunity to address the urgency of climate change, which recent reports have documented needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

“It is not obvious a sense of urgency is present in the plan,’’ said Ellen White, a Highland Park resident who called for more aggressive action to deal with climate change, such as a moratorium on new fossil-fuel projects, a goal repeatedly advocated by speakers.

“It would show a clean commitment to the climate crisis,’’ she said.

Others criticized the plan as dodging the issue of regulating greenhouse-gas emissions, an issue some environmentalists have pressed for more than a decade. “Stop making the problem worse, said John Reichman of BlueWaveNJ.