A clean-energy bill that combines subsidies to cushion nuclear franchises and programs to boost renewable energy was postponed by the New Jersey Senate Monday following four hours of testimony last week from dozens of experts.
The nuclear part of the deal, which had been introduced hastily in December but never got to a vote in either chamber, has now been combined with a package of environmental initiatives from another bill. To the surprise of some, environmental groups at last week’s hearing opposed the deal as falling short of what is needed.
The bill could mean up to $300 million a year for 10 years to Public Service Electric & Gas to maintain and upgrade its two nuclear plants in Salem County, which together form the nation’s second largest nuclear power complex. The funds would come from an increase of 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour on all electric bills in the state.
PSEG Chairman Ralph Izzo said repeatedly at last Thursday’s meeting that if nuclear plants were to close, it would be a disaster for ratepayers and the environment.
“In two to three years these plants will no longer be economically viable,” he said. “There are real consequences if the plants go away.”
Former New Jersey Gov. James Florio, a longtime environmentalist, testified in support of the bill, calling nuclear power the “bridge fuel of the future.”
“Nuclear plants closing means higher emissions, higher prices, and lower efficiency,” he said. “There’s nothing more important than good ideas, and this legislation is chock full of ‘em.”
Several environmental and renewables advocates begged to differ. Even though the bill also directs state funds to solar and offshore wind programs, several leading environmentalists wanted further improvements and said the nuclear subsidies were excessive.
Jeff Tittel, president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, whom The New York Times has called a “gadfly in the age of hardball,” likened the bill to “the Vietnam of legislation. We just keep getting sucked in deeper.”
“What [Sierra] would rather see is that we go back and revisit this issue and see how to keep nuclear plants online without a having a costly subsidy,” he said. “The only thing green about this bill is the amount of money PSEG is going to see as a result of it at the expense of the ratepayers.”
Environment NJ’s Doug O’Malley struck a similar chord.
“Even if the clean, renewable portion of the bill were as green as Ireland, ignoring the financial portion is a mistake,” said O’Malley. “This is a question of how much money is going out the door. There’s no endpoint to [the nuclear program], only a study after 10 years. That’s obscure.”
When Mary Barber, testifying for the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that neither group would support the bill without amendment, Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, expressed surprise.
“I was under the impression that both the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council were instrumental in drafting the renewable energy portion of this bill, is that correct?” he asked.
“We and others have provided lots of input,” Barber said. “A lot of what’s in that clean-energy piece, including energy efficiency, will result in savings for ratepayers…Through the process, as I know you know, things change and shift.”
Barber had written in a December 2017 blog post on Environmental Defense Fund’s website that there’s no proof that PSEG needs a nuclear “bailout” in the first place.
Gov. Phil Murphy has pledged to get New Jersey on track to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The Sierra Club, in an email sent out to its subscribers, said this bill stands directly in the way of that goal.
Clean Water Action State Director Amy Goldsmith wrote in a release sent out after the vote, “We should be manufacturing wind turbines and solar panels right here in New Jersey and making this state a renewable energy leader. We got horribly off-track under the Christie Administration and this bill does nothing to correct past mistakes.”
PSEG’s online fact sheet says that without nuclear, New Jersey ratepayers will be putting all of their eggs in one basket. PSEG’s Izzo said that homeowners averaging 600 kilowatts per hour could expect a $25-30 annual increase on electric bills to fund the nuclear subsidy program. The company’s online fact sheet stresses that nuclear plants won’t see a dime until the Board of Public Utilities gives the green light.
But Stephanie Brand, director of the Division of Rate Counsel, said that the bill needlessly weakens the role of a ratepayer advocate in BPU cases while raising consumers’ monthly costs.
“In sum, this bill is massive, and with each iteration it gets worse,” Brand said. “There is no reason to proceed on the fly like this. There is no imminent emergency related to any of this. We need to take the appropriate amount of time to make sure that the provisions of the bill have been crafted appropriately and that we are not paying for things we don’t need or paying too much for things we do need.”
Several legislators remarked on the dizzying scope of the bill.
“I see this bill and it’s not a perfect bill,” said Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, D-Hamilton, a primary sponsor. “It’s not a bill specifically that I would want to see, but I know in New Jersey that we have to do better and will do better when it comes to our renewables.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem/West Deptford, is a co-sponsor of the bill, and pushed for it in Thursday’s meeting.
“Where I live there are 2,000 direct jobs that are involved with this,” Sweeney said. “But more importantly the sound nuclear plants provide 39 percent of the power in this state, and if they shut down and you think energy’s going to get cheaper, you’re going to find it’ll go in the opposite direction.”
In the joint hearing of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee, the Senate bill was approved 8-3 with one abstention. The Assembly version also won approval in a preliminary vote.
All no votes came from Republicans who expressed reservations about the renewable-energy programs.
It is unclear when or if the bill will be rescheduled for a Senate vote.