Gov. Phil Murphy outlined the state’s new Energy Master Plan at Stockton University recently, adding some policies and initiatives to help achieve New Jersey’s longtime goal of transitioning to all clean energy by 2050.
The goal remains a good aspiration and may be feasible with enough new technology. The plan suggests an approach and path that might be reasonable, depending on how its many parts are implemented. The range of possible outcomes is great — from efficient, cost-effective and realistic changes in energy use and development to bungled, wasteful, resident-crushing mandates that achieve little environmental benefit.
Give Murphy credit for acknowledging the reality of New Jersey energy markets and needs. Over the opposition of the most zealous of his environmentalist supporters, his master plan defines clean energy as carbon neutral — which allows for nuclear power and even natural gas if its carbon emissions are offset elsewhere. Those two sources provide 94% of the state’s energy, and South Jersey’s three nuclear plants provide 90% of its clean energy. The plan was supported by numerous leading conservation groups, including NJ Audubon, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
The plan includes familiar strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions such as promoting the use of electric vehicles, supporting renewable energy providers and increasing energy efficiency.
A glimpse of how the Murphy administration might push residents and businesses to conform to state energy goals was seen in his executive order issued the same day.
The state Department of Environmental Protection was ordered to reform land-use rules to reduce development in flood-prone areas. If this merely further restricts new building in flood zones, it will enjoy broad support. If it seeks to prevent rebuilding the thousands of homes at the Jersey Shore, it will provoke a firestorm of opposition.
The DEP also was ordered to create new air pollution regulations for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Those could provide a nudge in the right direction or badly damage the state’s economy.
State business organizations and Republicans criticized the ongoing absence of any cost-benefit analysis of the state’s energy plans. In a recent op-ed, Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, R-Morris, Somerset, cited cost estimates of $35,000 per household to convert homes from natural gas to electricity only.
The worthwhile transition to clean energy “will be expensive and regressive,” said Frank A. Felder, the director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University. His op-ed for NJ Spotlight said residents will pay more directly and shoulder the increases passed along by businesses, nonprofits and government at all levels — hitting lower-income residents hardest.
Felder said the often-touted jobs in clean energy will be offset by jobs lost due to higher energy costs. And even if New Jersey zeroes out its greenhouse emissions — about 0.2% of global emissions — it will still bear the costs of adapting to climate change. Those too will fall on its residents.
A study of the impact of the Energy Master Plan on ratepayers might be better than leaving people to think the costs will be so high they must be kept secret. But cost forecasts for the decades ahead, like those for energy markets and technology, are guesses at best.
Just knowing that all New Jersey residents will have to pay substantially more should be enough to motivate Gov. Murphy, other state leaders, the state Board of Public Utilities and the DEP to make reducing the cost of this transition their top priority.
One way to help do that would be to quit trying to make New Jersey the first in the nation to restrict the choices of consumers, upend its energy markets and put residents through the wringer. Ask any consumer — early adopters pay more and get troublesome first versions of technology. Nationwide firsts may make a particularly attractive grandstand for politicians, but residents shouldn’t have to overpay to build it for them.