2019 will be the year New Jersey’s bold shift to clean energy takes shape. By midyear, residents and businesses should get early estimates of how much it will cost them.
In these last two weeks of December alone, the state Board of Public Utilities is dealing with wind energy, electric vehicles and nuclear subsidies.
BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso told The Press Editorial Board last week that the agency’s mainly regulatory work used to be pretty boring until clean energy came along. Now staff is passionate and working hard to keep up.
Yesterday the BPU rejected for a third and probably final time a long-proposed small wind-energy project a few miles off Atlantic City. Originally called Fishermen’s Energy, it was denied again for the high cost of power it would produce. The project had been taken over by EDF Renewables North America and renamed Nautilus Offshore Wind.
Supporters of the project in the state Legislature ordered the BPU to consider the project one more time and came close to ordering its approval regardless of its cost to ratepayers. Fiordaliso said the board would do what is prudent and in the best interests of New Jersey.
Also on the agenda yesterday was support for building electric vehicle charging stations in the state. Even though New Jersey waives its sales tax on electric vehicle purchases, there are just 14,000 of them on its roads. Fiordaliso said the goal is 330,000 zero emission vehicles by 2025.
That state goal and another for 600 megawatts of energy storage by 2021 look unrealistic unless there is a breakthrough on battery technology soon.
Today applications for a state nuclear energy subsidy are due to the BPU. The operator of New Jersey’s three nuclear plants in Salem County, PSEG, says it needs the subsidy to keep them open now that abundant natural gas has knocked down the price of electricity.
There have been two improvements to the nuclear subsidy process since the state authorized the subsidies in May. Initially it appeared the BPU could only grant $300 million a year or no subsidy, the latter an unlikely alternative. But Fiordaliso made clear it can approve a smaller subsidy and reduce it in future years if appropriate.
And although the Legislature tried to sideline the N.J. Ratepayer Advocate from the proceedings, the BPU granted that office full intervention in the case, along with an independent market monitor from the electric grid New Jersey is part of.
Utilities will start collecting the $300 million in April, but what isn’t spent on the subsidy will be returned to ratepayers, Fiordaliso said.
Next week, bids are due to the BPU to provide 1,100 megawatts of offshore-wind energy — the first installment on 3,500 megawatts in the largest offshore wind power plan among East Coast states.
The project will be funded by ratepayers, who will find out what they’ll pay when the bid is awarded in the first half of 2019. Fiordaliso said affordability will be a factor and the cost to ratepayers will be “probably a lot less than they think.”
The board will also consider the economic benefits from constructing, deploying and operating the massive wind turbines far out to sea, Fiordaliso said, and he expects South Jersey and its ports to benefit from construction.
The Board of Public Utilities also has been directed to produce a new state energy master plan by June, which will serve as a roadmap to reaching the state’s ambitious and climate friendly goal of using 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
Fiordaliso said there is still a debate about the future role of nuclear energy, which currently provides about a third of the state’s power and the vast majority of its carbon-free electricity. In particular, it has political and waste-disposal problems at the national level.
The BPU considers solar its first big clean energy success, with 100,000 solar installations in the state and the cost of solar panels cut in half. The question now is what, if any, subsidies are needed by the mature solar industry.
Fiordaliso said it is like parents who “do absolutely everything for a child when an infant, then as that child grows, mommy and daddy kind of pull back.”
A solar plan also due soon is likely to include an environmental justice component — helping low- to moderate-income residents who typically couldn’t benefit from state solar subsidies because they couldn’t afford the cost of a residential solar installation. Community solar projects that benefit multiple households are a possibility, and the state already has one pilot program.
Finally, the BPU’s traditional responsibility for regulating public utilities now also includes preparing them for this remaking of New Jersey energy systems. It has issued 130 new directives to utilities regarding infrastructure enhancements in an effort to minimize the number and length of outages.
That’s quite a to-do list for the BPU’s 222 employees, and a major change in what sources of energy New Jersey residents and businesses use and how much they pay for it.