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Op-Ed: Principles that Should Guide Final Version of NJ’s Energy Master Plan

‘The enormity of the work required to move the energy master plan from vision to implementation can’t be overstated’

Scott Weiner
Scott Weiner

Today, tomorrow, 20 years from now, when you want to turn on a light or electrical appliance in your home, you’ll just flip the switch. That won’t change — but just about everything else about how power travels from its source to consumers will.

We are at the cusp of a once-in-a-hundred-years transformation in how energy will be supplied, delivered, and used in our state and in our country.

That’s a good thing, because the threat from climate change, combined with technology and innovation, are rapidly altering the face of energy distribution in ways that will be more convenient and more affordable, as well as healthier and safer.

The recently released draft of the New Jersey Energy Master Plan presents the vision for state government policy in New Jersey to capture the opportunities from the new realities of how energy is produced, sold, and delivered.

The process to evaluate and finalize the Energy Master Plan is expected to result in publication of the final plan later this year. Gov. Phil Murphy, state Board of Public Utilities president Joseph L. Fiordaliso, and other agency heads who contributed to the draft plan are to be commended for presenting a sweeping vision of policy initiatives and goals that reflect the interdependent nature of what a 21st-century energy system should look like. The draft plan is both aspirational and attainable.

Breathtaking scope

Now, we need the connective tissue of first principles and values to link the breathtaking scope of the policies articulated in the plan together so policymakers, energy producers and distributors, and energy users can make the right choices to create New Jersey energy markets that work for everyone.

The enormity of the work required to move the energy master plan from vision to implementation can’t be overstated. New Jersey state agencies must devote sufficient resources for staff and experts, provide all stakeholders with a meaningful opportunity to participate through hands-on, topic-focused workshops, and operate within a well-defined management framework that assigns leadership and accountability for each specific initiative presented by the plan.

Four important, compelling principles provide a sturdy foundation for the entire plan: addressing climate change, empowering customer choice, making the 21st-century energy system and its benefits available to all New Jerseyans, and a commitment to seeking the most cost-effective initiatives.

Proposing a fifth principle

I’d like to propose a fifth principle: stakeholders as a valued resource and partner. This will be attained by creating opportunities to engage in substantive working groups, where they can present, comment upon, and refine specific proposals.

In thinking about one subset of the draft plan, I want to start a discussion by suggesting two supplemental principles pertaining to the electric distribution system:

  • A commitment to design the local electric distribution system that is based on distributed energy resources (DER) that can provide clean, resilient, and locally valuable energy; DER — characterized by small-scale units of local generation connected to the grid near where energy is used, rather than to large, distant power plants — is coming, even if New Jersey does nothing. It will proliferate on people’s rooftops in their homes, and by technologies. The electric grid is changing. It’s going in both directions — not just from provider to consumer, because consumers will become providers. It’s becoming transactive — meaning that not only utilities, but also consumers and DER providers, will engage in buying and selling energy. And it’s becoming technology rich.

  • Recognition that the roles of the utility and the nature of regulation are changing. Electric utilities will remain essential players in the system, but their role will focus on empowering customer choice and opportunity, both end users and DER providers.

Supplying energy is evolving from exclusively poles and wires to a digital system that facilitates all forms of energy transactions. This new 21st-century grid needs a regulatory system that supports a local electric system that is increasingly clean and efficient, and serves as the platform for a robust retail energy marketplace. Amid all this change, it’s important to point out that the obligation of safe, adequate utility service at reasonable cost isn't going away. The obligation of utilities to provide that service, and the state to provide a mechanism to assure it, isn't changing. What is changing is how all that will be accomplished.

The process of finalizing and implementing New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan is an opportunity to be seized with enthusiasm and commitment.

If we do this right, New Jersey will have a 21st-century energy system capable of bringing economic benefits to everyone, by providing affordable, clean, efficient energy, and in the process, thousands of good local jobs.

Scott Weiner is CEO of my-RESI, a New Jersey-based developer of residential solar and storage systems. As president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities in 1990, he led the development of a state Energy Plan 29 years ago.

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