The tug of war between government and private-sector growth took center stage Tuesday as local energy insiders gathered for a clean-energy conference meant to kick off a national debate about energy and economic priorities.
The event was co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Somerset County Business Partnership. It was the first of a series of national events the U.S. chamber has lined up in the coming months.
The event took place at the headquarters MX Solar USA, the U.S. affiliate of MX Group, an Italian solar manufacturer. MX opened its doors in the Somerset section of Franklin last year, and has 110 employees.
Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset), who chairs the Assembly’s Telecommunications and Utilities Committee, said the MX plant was a sign of the solar industry’s economic impact on the state.
“Whatever people may say about solar energy, the one job-producer in New Jersey right now is solar energy,” he said.
William L. Kovacs, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber, outlined the results of a chamber’s “Project No Project” initiative, which aims to catalogue energy projects being stalled or canceled due to permit delays, complex regulation, local opposition or other factors. A study of those projects found that if the 351 identified projects were completed, they could boost the nation’s economy by $1.1 trillion in the short term, and add as many as 1.9 million jobs per year.
Clean energy under fire
But Kovacs said red tape and local opposition aren’t only hurting would-be projects in the more-controversial areas of nuclear power or coal-fired power. The study found 45 percent of the projects were in the clean-energy realm.
“The significant point of the study was not that coal was being attacked,” Kovacs said. “We knew that. The significant point of the study was that renewables are being attacked at an equal or greater rate to clean coal.”
Kovacs said his point isn’t that every project should be allowed to go forward, but he said the best projects ought to go forward.
“All of them can’t be bad and we’ve got to begin as a country to understand that some are better than others — but we’re killing them all,” he said. “There’s no reason to do that.”
Eric Svenson, vice president of policy and environment, health and safety at Public Service Enterprise Group, took issue with one part of Kovacs’ presentation, saying plummeting natural gas prices played a bigger role in stalling nuclear projects than permitting issues.
“They didn’t go forward, not due to permitting,” he said. “They (didn’t go) forward because the economics tanked.”
While Kovacs championed regulatory reform at the national level, much of the talk Tuesday centered on Gov. Chris Christie‘s new energy master plan draft, which was unveiled two weeks ago.
Chivukula criticized Christie for not including in the draft a long-term schedule for Solar Alternate Compliance Payments.
In New Jersey, power suppliers are required to incorporate a certain percentage of renewable energy in their portfolios. Power companies can fulfill that requirement either by generating their own renewable energy or by buying credits — called Solar Renewable Energy certificates — earned by business owners and homeowners who have installed solar arrays.
Failing those two options, power suppliers can pay a penalty, called the Solar Alternate Compliance Payment. Those alternate compliance payments effectively act as a ceiling for SREC prices, and thus have a great effect on return-on-investment timelines. The Legislature has passed a bill setting alternate compliance payment rates for the next five years, but it ordered the Board of Public Utilities to set rates for 10 years beyond that.
A plan without long-term stability
Chivukula said he had hoped those levels would be outlined in the master plan, as those figures are needed as soon as possible to provide long-term stability to the state’s solar market.
Bob Martin, the state’s commissioner of environmental protection, said the Christie administration aimed to craft a plan that promoted renewable and clean energy, but which recognized the need to grow the state’s economy and the need to curb the state’s already-high energy prices.
Martin said he expects wind energy to be one of the hallmarks of the Christie administration’s tenure, and he said the governor has committed to not allow any new coal-powered plants to be built here.
Martin also defended the master plan’s renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, goal, which calls for 22.5 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2021. That number is in line with the BPU’s stated goal, but it’s a change from the last energy master plan, developed under Gov. Jon S. Corzine, that set a goal of having 30 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2020.
Martin said Corzine’s loftier goal was unrealistic.
“It had no plan to it,” Martin said. “It was almost an aspirational number thrown in there. We would very much love to blow past 22.5 percent. That is our goal — to blow past the 22.5 percent RPS standard — but we want to have goals that we can achieve.”