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Transmission bill a signal on which way wind is blowing

Project to connect offshore energy farms to land could create jobs, but needs legislative support for a mostly stagnant industry in N.J.

The planned route of the New Jersey Energy Link, which needs legislative support to move forward.-(COURTESY ATLANTIC WIND CONNECTION)

A bill before the state Senate could help make a highly publicized offshore electric transmission line a reality, but the proposal is raising plenty of questions — both about New Jersey’s wind energy future and the potential cost to ratepayers.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-West Deptford) introduced a bill last month that would ask the regional grid operator, PJM Interconnection, to incorporate an offshore transmission line into its regional transmission expansion plan.

Passage of the bill is a crucial step for Atlantic Wind Connection, a company hoping to connect offshore wind farms to terrestrial power grids from northern New Jersey to southern Virginia.

“It would have huge advantages for wind developers, because now they do not have to build their own transmission lines onto shore,” said Bob Mitchell, Atlantic Wind Connection’s CEO. “It simplifies their permitting process.”

The New Jersey section of the transmission line, dubbed the New Jersey Energy Link, is slated to be built first.

PJM has said it will add a transmission project to its expansion plan if a state’s governor, regulator, Legislature or utility regulator instructs the grid operator to do so. But, according to Mitchell, the state also must “agree that the ratepayers of the state will cover the cost of that transmission line, just like they cover the transmission costs for other transmission lines.”

Mitchell met with the governor’s office, the Board of Public Utilities and legislators. Sweeney volunteered to introduce the bill; he “understands that if we take advantage of the possibilities that wind energy offers, it can be a huge boost for job creation and economic growth in New Jersey,” said Christopher Donnelly, a spokesman for the senator, in an e-mail.

Sweeney’s offshore wind optimism was echoed three years ago, when Gov. Chris Christie signed the state’s Offshore Wind Economic Development Act. But since then, progress has been minimal. The BPU has yet to release guidelines for the wind industry incentive created by the act. In the meantime, other states, most recently Maryland, have passed their own wind incentives.

Nonetheless, one project is moving forward here.

Fishermen’s Energy has applied to BPU to build a 25-megawatt wind farm pilot project off the coast of Atlantic City. The BPU is expected to rule by June 30.

Rhonda Jackson, a Fishermen’s spokesman, said her company’s wind farm would be in the water long before the Atlantic Wind Connection. It’s also closer to the shoreline than projects like Atlantic Wind’s, but Jackson said she believes there’s potential for other projects in the future that could utilize the offshore line.