Offshore wind, natural gas topics at Energy Master Plan hearing

NEWARK – Lee Solomon, president of the N.J. Board of Public Utilities, opened the first of three public hearings today, offering stakeholders and members of the public a platform to voice their opinions on the decade-long state energy blueprint.

Solomon, speaking at the N.J. Institute of Technology here, said there is no timetable for a final version of the Energy Master Plan (EMP), which was released in draft form by Gov. Chris Christie on June 7.

Solomon called it a “strategic vision for the use, management, and development of energy in New Jersey over the next decade,” focusing on “initiatives and mechanisms” that do not allow the state to “lose sight of environmental protection and inheritance.”

“Energy diversity is essential,” Solomon said, although the state reduced its renewable energy goal from 30 percent to 22.5 percent because the new administration said the old goal was unattainable.

Solomon said the document also addresses energy tax credits when necessary, analyses of energy demands and utilization, initiatives to increase energy efficiency, and capitalization on emerging technologies.

Four working groups, Solomon said, will be providing the board feedback on clean energy funding, alternate fuel vehicles, and innovative biomass technologies.

The first speaker, Erich Stephens of Offshore MW L.L.C., said he understood Christie’s number one priority to be jobs, which led him to question why more investment wasn’t being put into offshore wind. The target for offshore wind in the EMP is 2,000 megawatts, but Stephens asked the state to up that goal to 3,000 megawatts.

Stephanie Brand, director of the Division of Rate Counsel, countered critics who are down on the state’s approach to renewable energy, but also said she’s not certain that the EMP will meet the state’s energy needs in the future.

With the ramp-up to the closure of Oyster Creek nuclear plant and potential for reduction in “dirtier” coal energy production, Brand said the state has failed to provide adequate incentives to trigger new generation projects. “It’s not clear whether we will have enough capacity to (meet) New Jersey’s needs,” she said.

Brightening the outlook is an increase in offshore wind production, a bump for solar programs, and better prices for natural gas, Brand said. “However, they will not be sufficient,” she said, to counteract the state’s reliance on coal. She said the “economics for nuclear are not there,” but, “I personally think that our solar story is a very positive one.” Christie’s plan leaves the door open for a new nuclear power plant at some point.

Brand said the “significant” investment in solar by the state has increased installations and redirected the focus from residential installations – “which does benefit the wealthy” – to more community-based installation, like on brownfields.

Ed Graham, president of South Jersey Industries, a parent of South Jersey Gas, said natural gas should be a “centerpiece” in the state’s energy plan. He said the abundance of the energy source in the Marcellus shale is “great news for our customers.”

Although there is considerable debate over the environmental fallout from the use of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, to reach the gas buried in the rock, Graham assured the audience that the drilling process is safe. He said the increased usage of locally drilled gas can also reduce the need for foreign imports. Offshore wind, natural gas topics at Energy Master Plan hearing