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Blowing hot and cold on wind farm

The state Board of Public Utilities remains opposed to a project off A.C. that New Jersey has been touting.

New Jersey's much-touted efforts to promote offshore wind farms continue to lose steam amid growing criticism from lawmakers and others.

In a filing last week by the staff of the state Board of Public Utilities, the agency reiterated its opposition to a proposed pilot project 2.8 miles off the coast of Atlantic City.

Advocates said the first offshore wind farm to go before regulators would demonstrate the benefits of developing a robust new industry off New Jersey.

The opposition from the agency's staff, filed in a case pending before the BPU, casts increased doubt on the fate of the 25-megawatt project, dubbed the Fishermen's Atlantic City Wind farm.

The BPU will hold a hearing on the project this month. The proceedings may kill the project, which many in the industry already view as unlikely to proceed.

But the agency's stance seemed certain to heighten recurring criticism from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), other lawmakers, and environmentalists, who on Wednesday once again lashed out at the BPU for failing to implement a three-year-old law designed to move New Jersey into a leadership role in promoting a new, cleaner way of producing electricity.

Under the state's energy master plan, New Jersey aims to promote development of 1,100 megawatts of offshore-wind capacity by 2020. Those efforts have been stymied by the BPU's failure to adopt a financing mechanism to develop wind farms up to 20 miles offshore, as well as delays in federal permits for the projects. The state agency was supposed to develop rules to make that happen by March 2011 but has yet to propose any financing device.

"Three years ago, we took a great step forward for renewable energy, jobs, and economic growth here in New Jersey," said Sweeney, who sponsored the bill signed into law by Gov. Christie. "But almost three years later, almost nothing has come to pass. That is unacceptable."

Sweeney argued that when New Jersey passed the offshore-wind law, the state was viewed as the leader in the nation in developing the technology, which is used widely in Europe and other parts of the globe.

"The window is closing; these jobs are going to go away," Sweeney said at a Statehouse news conference, adding that states such as Maryland and Massachusetts were being more aggressive in efforts to lure offshore-wind manufacturers.

Sweeney has blamed the delays in promoting the projects on Christie's presidential ambitions - offshore-wind development is opposed by many conservatives - but last week, he pinned most of the blame on the BPU.

Sweeney and Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic) both noted that the Division of Rate Counsel, which represents the interests of utility customers, previously signed a stipulation of agreement with Fishermen's Energy in support of the project, saying it would benefit consumers. In an unusual move, however, the Division of Rate Counsel has declined to amplify its previous support for the Atlantic City project.

"The rest of the world has figured this out," Whelan said. "It is a tremendous opportunity for economic growth."

The BPU declined to comment on the criticisms.

In the filing in the Fishermen's Energy case, however, the agency's staff argued that the project did not meet certain requirements in the 2010 law, which set a stiff standard in requiring developers to project how the electricity from the turbines (which are more expensive than traditional power plants) would provide a net economic benefit to the state. The staff also questioned the technology selected by the developer to produce electricity from the turbines, saying it might pose an unnecessary technical risk.

Economics, however, seemed to be the biggest factor in the state agency's opposition. The Fishermen's Energy project relies on lucrative federal tax credits to make it viable from a business and ratepayer perspective, but those incentives expire at the end of this year unless Congress renews them, and that appears a long-shot prospect, at best.

"We feel we have addressed every part of the statute," said Paul Gallagher, chief operating officer and general counsel at Fishermen's Energy. He said the company's project would present zero risk to ratepayers - whether or not the project received the sought-after federal subsidies.

The BPU will hear oral arguments on the Atlantic City project Dec. 20. Meanwhile, there may be legislative efforts, or even litigation in court, to try to advance offshore-wind projects.