Gov. Christie’s Energy Plan Draws Fire from Clean Power Advocates

The plan would reduce renewable energy goals to 22.5 percent of electricity generation by 2020, down from the 30 percent of his predecessor

Gov. Christie
Governor Christie announces the NJ draft Energy Master Plan on June 7, 2011/Credit: Governor's Office, Tim Larsen

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Gov. Chris Christie’s vision for New Jersey’s energy future has come under fire from green industry groups who say his blueprint would undermine the state’s national leadership in clean energy development.

The governor announced the much-anticipated draft of his 2011 Energy Master Plan (EMP) last Tuesday, just two weeks after vowing to withdraw New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a regional carbon trading program.

“The EMP supports the development of new energy-related technologies such as fuel cells, offshore wind, and alternatively fueled vehicles while encouraging the developers, providers and support businesses related to these technologies, to locate here in New Jersey,” Christie said in a June 7 press release.

But critics of the plan say that Christie sends a conflicting message: he avows to place a broader emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, yet proposes to eliminate certain solar energy incentive programs and lower the bar on statewide renewables goals.

The EMP is a non-binding document with a 10-year outlook meant to guide legislators on energy policy decisions. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) is the plan’s lead implementing agency and will hold three public hearings in July and August before Christie issues his final plan.

Christie’s draft was expected to be released this spring but was delayed, in part because of Japan’s Fukushima crisis and the debate it has sparked over the future of nuclear power in New Jersey.

Ultimately, the governor said he would consider the possibility of opening a new nuclear station once the 615-megawatt, 42-year-old Oyster Creek plant closes in 2019, 10 years ahead of schedule. He noted that three natural gas projects totaling nearly 2,000 megawatts of power have already been awarded contracts for new in-state combined-cycle generation plants.

Local business groups largely applauded the inclusion of nuclear power and natural gas, and they praised the governor for his efforts to cut commercial energy costs. But Assembly Utilities and Telecom Chairman Upendra Chivukula saw mixed signals.

“His message is going back and forth, and it is very conflicting in terms of how he wants to achieve what he is trying to achieve,” he told SolveClimate News.

He pointed to Christie’s reduction of the plan’s renewable energy goals to 22.5 percent of all electricity generation by 2020, down from the 30 percent renewables goals laid out by his predecessor, former Gov. Jon Corzine.

Christie’s EMP would also consider scaling back the state’s solar energy requirement to reach around 2,500 gigawatt-hours of in-state solar electricity generation by 2021 and more than 5,300 gigawatt-hours by 2026.

The plan suggests shifting the focus from individual homeowner solar projects to industrial-scale arrays as well.

“We believe that the recommendations in the plan regarding solar are inappropriate, and now is not the time to reduce our solar goals,” said Dennis Wilson, president of Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association (MSEIA), a solar advocacy trade association representing New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

“Solar energy costs have greatly decreased and they are predicted to continue to decrease by as much as 50 percent through the rest of the decade, so now is really the time to increase that commitment,” he said.

New Jersey is the nation’s second largest solar market behind California. With nearly 300 megawatts of solar power, New Jersey accounted for 14 percent of U.S. cumulative installed solar capacity in 2010, while California made up 47 percent with 971 megawatts, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Matt Elliot, Environment New Jersey‘s global warming and clean energy advocate, said he was particularly concerned about Christie’s plan to phase out the Societal Benefits Charge, which raised $1.2 billion from 2001 to 2010 to support New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program.

The charge is imposed on all customers of the state’s investor-owned electric and gas utilities and equates to nearly 4 percent of annual energy bills. So far this year, nearly 80 percent of funds raised have gone to electric and natural gas efficiency programs, while 4.5 percent have gone to renewable energy initiatives and 13.5 percent to clean energy manufacturing.

“It is hands down the biggest reason why we have become one of the nation’s clean energy leaders,” Elliot said.

“Instead of supporting the state’s efforts to move toward clean energy, [Christie] is actually scaling back on a whole set of programs that are working and frankly should be expanded.”

John McKeon, the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Chairman, said that the governor’s earlier move to exit RGGI undermines his pledge to up the ante on energy efficiency and clean energy in the state.

“[The plan] rings hollow in light of last week’s announcement to pull out of RGGI,” he said.

Business leaders, however, see the scale back of renewables targets and solar energy incentive programs as a boon to industry in New Jersey.

“We are very encouraged that [Christie] is taking an effort to have an affordable and practical plan, and looking at ways to reduce energy costs for businesses is something that we are very supportive of,” said Sara Bluhm, vice president of energy and environment for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, which has 22,000 member companies.

She noted that a 2010 study by Rutgers Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy found that New Jersey’s state policies, including the Societal Benefit Charge, drive up residential electric bills by 26 percent each year.

“Being able to chip away at those costs helps to lower the overall cost of energy and business within the state,” she said.

Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, said that Christie’s renewables target of 22.5 percent by 2020 was a “realistic, attainable goal.”

The chamber represents 1,700 businesses ranging from mom-and-pop shops to some of America’s largest corporations, he said.

“We like what we see, and it is certainly a more business-friendly EMP [than Corzine’s] that takes into consideration those costs of energy for our business members,” Egenton said.

“We are very pleased that there is a diverse portfolio that includes a lot of the different sources of energy and that includes renewables, but at the same time recognizes that nuclear has to be part of that discussion as well as natural gas and alternative forms of energy.”