New Jersey Takes a Big Step Toward Renewable Energy (and Nuclear Gets Help, for Now)

Source: By NICK CORASANITI and BRAD PLUMER, New York Times • Posted: Friday, April 13, 2018

Gov. Philip D. Murphy has expressed his support for nuclear energy. “I believe the biggest bridge we have to our clean energy future are the nukes,” he said in an interview. Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

TRENTON — New Jersey significantly altered the future of its energy sector on Thursday, passing two bills that set ambitious goals for expanding renewable power and curtailing greenhouse gases in the state.

The bills, which require power companies in New Jersey to generate 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and subsidize existing nuclear power plants, mark one of the biggest new policy steps that any state has taken toward cutting greenhouse gases since President Trump was elected.

The central piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 3723, sets the renewable energy goal and anchors much of the growth in wind and solar energy, aiming to hit 35 percent renewables by 2025 and eventually 50 percent by 2030. That goal would pull New Jersey in line with some of the leading states on the issue, like New York and California.

The bill was passed in tandem with a $300 million annual subsidy to the state’s remaining nuclear power plants, which provide the state with roughly 40 percent of its electricity. Public Service Enterprise Group and Exelon, the utility companies that operate the power plants, say the subsidies are necessary to keep the power plants operational and open.

The bills passed by a wide margin in both the Assembly and Senate.

Since Mr. Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, 14 Democratic and Republican governors have announced that they would continue to uphold the accord and push forward with their own efforts to reduce emissions.

But, to date, new progress has been slow. States like California and New York already had progressive clean-energy policies that were well underway before Mr. Trump took office. And few states have managed to significantly step up policy action; efforts to put a price on carbon failed to pass through legislatures in Washington and Oregon this year.

But in New Jersey, Gov. Philip D. Murphy has seen some success, and these energy bills, which the governor has indicated he will sign, mark a significant step. Having made environmental issues a focus of both his campaign and his early tenure, Mr. Murphy has already signed numerous executive orders, including one that laid the groundwork for expanding offshore wind energy near Atlantic City.

While his administration has struggled to sell the tax increases arising from his inaugural budget to fellow Democrats, he has largely had success when it comes to moving the state forward in combating climate change.

“The environmental reality in this state for the past eight years, and if that weren’t enough, the environmental chops of the Trump administration,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview, “felt like an urgent crisis.”

The inclusion of the nuclear subsidy, though, has dampened enthusiasm among some environmental groups for the package of measures, exposing the rift among those who view nuclear energy as inherently clean — in that it has no greenhouse gas emissions — and those who view the industry as a threat because of safety, regulation and waste disposal issues.

Mr. Murphy is wholly in favor of nuclear energy.

“I believe the biggest bridge we have to our clean energy future are the nukes and, not to mention, the thousands of jobs they support,” he said.

The ambitious goals set forth in the renewable energy bill have caused concern among some environmental groups usually opposed to nuclear energy. But the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been supportive of New Jersey’s efforts toward renewable energy, has said it will not oppose the nuclear subsidy bill.

“We don’t want to see the abrupt closure of nuclear plants, because if you close them tomorrow, we know that they’ll just be replaced by more fossil fuels,” said Dale Bryk, senior strategic director at the defense council. “You have to have an orderly transition plan that involves scaling up renewables first, so that when the nuclear plants close, they’re replaced with clean energy.”

Indeed, environmental groups are increasingly being forced to grapple with the climate consequences of retiring nuclear plants. Across the United States, there are still 99 nuclear power plants in operation that supply one-fifth of the nation’s electricity without generating any carbon dioxide emissions. Six reactors have closed since 2013 and more than a dozen more are scheduled to retire by 2025 unless states decide otherwise.

New Jersey’s nuclear subsidy bill is similar to programs passed recently in New York and Illinois, where the Legislature would give the nuclear power plants financial credit for the carbon-free electricity they produce. Every three years, the companies that operate these reactors will have to open their books and show that they need the subsidies to stay operational.

In New Jersey, the Oyster Creek nuclear reactor is expected to close, but the subsidies would benefit the remaining three.

Still, some environmentalists in New Jersey have scoffed at this plan, viewing it as falling short in transparency for not requiring the utility companies to open their books to the public. And, they assert, the inclusion of the nuclear subsidy taints the clean-energy efforts in the companion bill.

“It’s going to put a chilling effect on spending more for renewable energy, because to build out renewable will cost much more,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This bill is about a nuclear subsidy, and that’s the primary purpose. And that’s the diversion to make you think you’re getting something that you’re not.”

The two bills will likely lead to an increase for New Jersey utility ratepayers, though the exact amount remains murky. The cost of subsidizing nuclear energy will be passed down to each ratepayer at a fee of approximately $41 a year, but Mr. Murphy has said he hopes to require public utilities to slash rates based on savings from the new federal tax law, which could potentially offset any increase.

The ambitious goals for renewable energy also follow a trend among the cities and states that have pledged to commit to upholding the Paris accord: By exceeding their share of the national commitments that would have existed under the international agreement, the states are accelerating the country’s overall progress, despite the headwinds from Washington.

“If you look at the United States commitments under Paris, these percentages would more than uphold New Jersey’s share of the burden,” said Robert C. Orr, one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement as the United Nations secretary general’s lead climate adviser. He is now dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

“Obviously, New Jersey is a significant state, but it’s not a driver in the same sense that California is,” Mr. Orr said. “But by putting New Jersey in a group with California and New York and then Vermonts and the Marylands, you start to see, not getting all the way to Paris targets, but you start to see the trend line moving toward us meeting Paris.”