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Christie's plan rolls back renewable energy goals

TRENTON - Gov. Christie on Tuesday outlined a vision for New Jersey's energy future that focuses on nuclear, natural gas, and commercial solar power, and retreats from ambitious renewable energy goals.

TRENTON - Gov. Christie on Tuesday outlined a vision for New Jersey's energy future that focuses on nuclear, natural gas, and commercial solar power, and retreats from ambitious renewable energy goals.

The governor introduced a long-awaited energy master plan at a news conference more than a year after his administration said it would revise the document developed under the previous administration to reflect the economic downturn.

The release follows the governor's controversial announcement last week to pull New Jersey out of a multistate cap-and-trade agreement for greenhouse gas emissions, a key part of Gov. Jon S. Corzine's energy plan.

Some environmental advocates said the plan, coming so soon after the withdrawal from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), would damage the state's leadership on green energy, but a chamber of commerce lobbyist called it business-friendly.

The Board of Public Utilities will hold hearings over the summer on the plan.

Christie's 141-page blueprint calls for reconsideration of other energy programs, including solar power, which New Jersey has been a national leader in promoting.

At the news conference, the governor pledged his support to developing renewable energy, but said the administration wanted to decrease the percentage of renewable sources in its portfolio to 22.5 percent because the 30 percent required under Corzine was not achievable.

He called it a "pie-in-the-sky" sop to special interests with no way to be achieved. Christie said he was "trying to create an entire basket of options." Those include everything from harnessing offshore wind to converting waste to energy through incineration.

Nuclear power also must play a role in the state's energy policy, he said, if it is serious about meeting its goals to reduce carbon emissions and generate more electricity in state. He left open the possibility of building a replacement for the Oyster Creek nuclear facility, set to go off-line by the end of the decade.

A new nuclear plant must be considered given that more than 50 percent of the state's power is generated from nuclear sources, Christie said.

His energy plan also emphasizes generating electricity from natural gas-fired plants and expanding natural gas pipelines.

On solar energy, the Christie administration was critical of a program allowing people who install solar panels to sell solar credits to utilities, which are required to make "compliance alternative payments" if they do not buy the required number of credits.

The report recommends lowering the alternative payments and suggests reevaluating the costs and benefits of the program, saying that the administration opposes "the unreasonable transfer of wealth" from ratepayers to solar developers and other participants. The plan also encourages large-scale commercial solar projects over residential ones.

It also criticized parts of the state's energy efficiency programs, including rebates subsidizing purchase of efficient home appliances, saying those policies should be reevaluated. It is unclear, the report said, "if nonparticipants reap sufficient benefits in the form of cleaner air or lower power prices to offset the additional costs" on their utility bills.

That could pave the way for the eventual reduction or elimination of the Societal Benefits Charge, which costs on average just over $50 a year per household and pays for energy efficiency, clean energy, assistance for low-income customers, and other programs. The Christie administration signaled that it would seek to replace the charge with a revolving loan fund.

These proposals pose challenges for how the state will fund green energy programs, given that emitters of greenhouse gases had put up millions of dollars in allowances through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to help pay for them. A fiscal crisis last year also led Christie to divert $400 million from dedicated environmental funds into the general budget, including those set aside for clean energy.

Environmental advocates say Christie's policies are shifting New Jersey from being a leader in green energy to a state that is sending a message to those in the industry that it would be wiser to invest in other states.

His emphasis on natural gas and nuclear power, among other things, "could mean that we're pushing out renewable energy. We'll remove the incentive to be as aggressive as possible on wind, solar, and other emerging technologies for renewable energies," said Matthew Elliott, the global warming and clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey.

Dennis Wilson, president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Association, said New Jersey's solar industry had grown rapidly and the cost of generation had dropped significantly.

He criticized the decision to lower the percentage of renewable energy sources in the state's portfolio, saying it should be increased. The move could cost thousands of jobs, he said.

"There are big consequences to rolling this back," Wilson said.

But Michael Egenton, a lobbyist for the state Chamber of Commerce, said the master plan was business-friendly and considered energy costs for all customers, large and small.

"If we can change the equation to go toward some of the renewable, that's great, but nobody's come to the table showing . . . absolutely that wind and solar can do it alone," said Egenton, saying the state needs a combination of sources including nuclear power. "It can't."