The Energy 202: With Chris Christie gone, wind energy may pick up speed in New Jersey

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Phil Murphy exits the polling booth with his youngest son Sam, after voting at the Fairview School on Tuesday, in Middletown, N.J. (Bob Karp/The Daily Record via AP)

For years, New Jersey’s blustery Republican governor, Chris Christie, has slowed efforts to cultivate wind farms off the state’s coast, wind developers say.

In 2010, during his first term, Christie signed a landmark wind energy law designed to encourage development of the renewable resource off the state’s gusty shore. But the public utility board controlled by Christie appointees never fully implemented a plan meant to incentivize that development. In New Jersey, turbines off the seaside horizon remained a mirage that never materialized.

New Jersey residents just elected a Democrat to replace Christie — one with an ambitious alternative energy plan. One of the biggest energy-related consequences of the 2017 election is the gust of life breathed into offshore wind development in the densely populated and energy-hungry Garden State.

Gov.-elect Phil Murphy wants New Jersey to get all its energy from “clean” sources by the middle of the century.

To do so, Murphy promised to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, under which nine East Coast states cap and trade carbon dioxide to reduce climate-warming emissions from the power sector. And he set what his campaign calls “the most ambitious offshore wind target in the country” by promising to bring 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind power online by 2030.

Wind companies itching to build off the Jersey Shore are pleased with the prospect.

Murphy’s “got a really good handle on this industry, not only from an economic perspective but from an environmental one as well,” said Paul Rich, director of project development at US Wind. “I think he’s poised to be bold where others have gotten cold feet.”

“We are hopeful that a Murphy administration will continue to move New Jersey forward in the development of a robust offshore wind industry,” said Thomas Brostrom, the North American president of Orsted (formerly DONG Energy).

Although land-based wind energy has taken off in the United States — pushing wind-generating capacity above that of hydropower by the end of 2016, more than any other renewable source — the nation has built only one commercial offshore wind farm, off the coast of Rhode Island’s Block Island, despite the federal government awarding nearly a dozen commercial offshore wind leases for locations off the coasts of Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia.

With Christie leaving office, New Jersey could be next. Orsted, a Danish firm, along with US Wind, a subsidy of the Italian energy company Renexia, each hold federal leases to build off New Jersey. Another firm, Fisherman Energy, has proposed to build a wind farm in state waters near Atlantic City, as well.

While declining worldwide, the upfront costs of offshore wind are still much higher than onshore, and require more subsidization from federal and local governments to make financial sense to investors.

Until it expires in 2019, offshore wind developers can take advantage of an investment tax credit from the federal government. For seven years, New Jersey has had a law requiring the state to grant its own subsidy, too.

“We’re going to work to make New Jersey No. 1 in offshore wind production,” Christie said in 2011, not long after signing that measure.

But the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU), whose chairman is chosen by the governor, never finalized rules for that subsidy.

Christie “realized that he needed to jettison anything that looked moderate” in order to win over conservatives nationwide “when people started looking at him as president timber,” said Jim Lanard, chief executive of ‎‎Magellan Wind.

The board also rejected Fisherman Energy’s state-waters project three times. Without that greenlight, the federal Energy Department cut off funding to the project earlier this year, too.

“This election makes me confident that New Jersey government, including the BPU, will now evaluate offshore wind and specifically the Fishermen’s Energy project in a fair and balanced way,” said Chris Wissemann, a board member and former chief executive of Fisherman Energy.

But the law, even if finalized by the Murphy administration, authorizes incentives for 1,100 megawatts of offshore generation at a minimum. But that’s less than a third of the target Murphy set for 2030 — meaning that the New Jersey’s Democratically controlled legislature probably needs to readdress the 2010 statute Christie signed to realize that goal.

The federal government presents another hurdle. The tax overhaul bill making its way through the House threatens to water down wind tax subsidies.

But that isn’t the biggest concern for the offshore wind industry. A trio of Republican senators from windy Midwestern states — Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), John Thune (S.D.) and Dean Heller (Nev.) — publicly oppose any alteration to wind tax credits. Even without the tax credits, “we believe that the offshore wind energy industry will continue to grow,” Lauren Burm, a spokeswoman for Orsted, North America, said by email.

And then there is President Trump. As a candidate, Trump railed against offshore wind power, once calling a set of turbines proposed near his Scottish golf course an act of “public vandalism.”

But since then, the Trump administration has sent positive signals to the offshore wind industry. The Interior Department auctioned off more than 100,000 acres of water off Kitty Hawk, N.C., with another 400,000 acres near New England water potentially on the way.

Both US Wind and Orsted say they want more federal leases granted in New Jersey, despite the competition it may bring to electricity markets. Other firms, including Magellan Wind, are eager to bid for a slice of New Jersey’s wind industry.

“We have said since we began our business in the U.S. in 2015 that we are here to build an industry, so more lease areas will help to build that pipeline of projects we need to keep the industry competitive and to attract the supply chain here,” said Burm of Orsted.