Stefanie Brand, the longtime director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, is retiring Friday, ending a 14-year run as the state’s most prominent, and probably most effective, advocate fighting customers’ rising utility bills.
Her departure comes amid sweeping changes occurring in the utility sector and as the transition to clean energy threatens to impose huge new costs on ratepayers, who are largely being asked to pay to subsidize these efforts. It is here where Brand generated her most criticism, sometimes being dubbed “Dr. No’’ by opponents.
‘She’s been incredibly effective and a real champion for consumers.’
During her time as director, Brand led the opposition to awarding $300 million in subsidies to keep New Jersey’s three nuclear plants from closing; repeatedly sought to lower incentives to the state’s thriving solar sector; and largely succeeded — so far — in limiting the state’s ability to build out the infrastructure for charging electric vehicles.
“She’s been incredibly effective and a real champion for consumers,’’ said Evelyn Liebman, associate director for AARP in New Jersey and a longtime ally of Brand on those issues.
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, agreed. “Her advocacy for ratepayers on the nuclear subsidies was unpopular, but she stuck by her guns,’’ he said.
Brand makes few apologies for fighting some high-priority climate issues, denying accusations by some who called her a climate-change denier. “I have never said we don’t have to address climate issues. It doesn’t mean you have to make hard choices on how much it costs,’’ Brand said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.
Before serving as rate counsel director, Brand was in the Division of Law in the Department of Law and Public Safety for 17 years, working on environmental issues, before eventually rising to an assistant attorney general.
Tom Gilbert, campaign director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, defended Brand. “She never questioned the value or importance to move to clean energy. She questioned whether the goals were being met in a cost-effective way,’’ he said.
Some criticism from energy advocates, lawmakers
Others still had their differences with her work. Fred DeSanti, executive director of the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, argued the Rate Counsel’s office has been too ‘’one-dimensional. All they care about is the price,’’ he said. “She knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.’’
Brand has long argued the state’s solar sector and lucrative incentives are exorbitant when compared to those in other states. “When I look at the profits of the solar industry (in New Jersey), I have a problem with it.”
Her view resonated with other clean-energy advocates and lawmakers, who eventually passed a bill directing the state Board of Public Utilities to scrap a decade-old system of financial incentives to the solar sector. A new, less-expensive solar incentive program took effect earlier this month.
Yet Brand still has critics among lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, the most prominent energy committee in the Legislature.
Smith does not question whether Brand was an effective advocate of ratepayers but wonders whether her challenges hindered efforts to address climate change in New Jersey. “We didn’t agree with her on a lot of things,’’ Smith said.
Rate Counsel restructuring
As a result, Smith said he is working on a bill to restructure the Division of Rate Counsel. “We need to review whether there is a better way to do this,’’ said Smith, who has become a stronger advocate of climate action in the wake of huge flood events, an outbreak of wildfires, and unusual heat waves around the world.
Smith said the bill, expected to be introduced in the lame-duck legislative session in November, is aimed at striking a better balance between keeping prices affordable and moving more quickly on initiatives to deal with climate change.
“We may have to spend money on the climate issue,’’ he said.
‘It is important for policymakers to not always take the easy route,’ Brand said.
Brand, who credits the Murphy administration and past administrations for a focus on keeping costs affordable to ratepayers, would like to see a greater focus on that issue when major decisions are made on rate impacts on consumers.
“It is important for policymakers to not always take the easy route,’’ she said, adding, “The easy ones come with high price tags.’’
Her leaving occurs at a time when there have been a few studies issued by conservative groups who have argued the state had underestimated costs to utility customers of the transition to clean energy.
“I have not yet seen a study that quantifies that cost,’’ said Brand, who is expected to continue teaching at Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania during her retirement. Those costs, although frequently promised, have never been detailed by state officials. An analysis is expected to be completed in 18 months.