State drags feet on releasing clean-energy costs — again

BPU argues pandemic means analysis must be done again. Businesses, consumers worry decisions will be made before there’s a clear financial picture of how transition will impact their bills
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The wind farm in which PSEG is set to acquire an interest is expected to be commissioned in 2024.

Once again, the state is delaying release of an analysis of what it will cost consumers and businesses to transition to a clean-energy economy, a move many fear may spike increases in utility bills.

The analysis, originally intended to be part of a revised Energy Master Plan adopted early this year, never made it into the final version of that plan, which was supposed to be done in the first quarter of 2020. That didn’t happen, and now officials are blaming the COVID-19 pandemic for the latest delay.

“We must take into account for how the economy and the world has changed,’’ said New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso at the start of the agency’s monthly meeting. The board needs to consider the impact of pandemic before assessing what the costs will be, Fiordaliso said.

“So, we are going to do it again,’’ he said, saying the assessment will likely take several months. “Hopefully, sooner rather than later.’’

Deciding before dollar values known

The decision to delay the analysis again means the board is likely to make decisions on key components of the Murphy administration’s clean-energy program before knowing what the costs will be for ratepayers and businesses, who will subsidize many of those efforts. Murphy wants to transition to 100% clean energy by midcentury.

Among those components are programs to help electrify the state’s transportation system, install smart meters, better integrate renewable energy technologies like solar and offshore wind into the grid and promote offshore wind.

At same time, consumer advocates and the state Division of Rate Counsel are asking the board to suspend reviewing new cases that could lead to cost increases for utility customers. Because of the pandemic and the resulting downturn in the economy, these folks are increasingly unable to pay their utility bills. By one BPU estimate, customers are $442 million in arrears on those bills.

Beyond billion-dollar hit?

Rate Counsel director Stefanie Brand and business groups have been the most vocal in urging the board to assess the impact of those clean-energy costs. Given filings already before the BPU, they could easily range in the billions of dollars, according to some critics.

“It is very disappointing that the economic analysis has not been released yet,’’ said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey. “The BPU is making monumental decisions on energy direction and costs,’’ he said. “You have to find out what this is going to cost before you make it.’’

Ray Cantor, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, agreed. “They are moving ahead with a whole slew of policies without knowing what the impact will be,’’ he said. “It is not what they promised.’’

He argued the overall analysis that they were doing with regard to electrification and renewables is largely the same. “The world may have changed, but the fallout on people’s behavior is purely speculative.’’

But Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, defended the board, noting COVID-19 changed everything. “The BPU needs to look at the external costs of air and climate pollution on public health,’’ he said. “We need a full 30,000 foot-view of our current energy system.’’

O’Malley contended the state should not only look at the additional cost of clean energy, but also at the full costs of fossil fuels and their impact on public health and the environment.