Nuclear subsidy plan back in Legislature, now a little greener
Three weeks after running into interference from new Gov. Phil Murphy, the prospect of charging ratepayers an extra $3 a month or more to ensure the viability of South Jersey nuclear plants has new life in the Legislature.
The idea got a Senate Environment Committee hearing Thursday but no vote, in a meeting delayed more than three hours while the bill was rewritten in private to reflect input from Murphy’s office. To give people time to analyze the bill, the vote was set for Feb. 5 in the Senate budget committee.
“And don’t be surprised if between now and Appropriations there might be one or two more changes,” said Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex. “But we think we’re at 95 percent of where we need to be.”
Murphy says he has always supported the idea of helping the nuclear plants but that the approach needed to fit the broader goal of getting all energy from renewable sources by 2050.
“We’re completely committed to keeping those nukes open, as long as they’re run safely, until their last allowable day. Too many jobs at stake. It’s the biggest bridge to a 100 percent clean energy future,” said Murphy. “But we want to see it done right, and being done right includes explicit steps to propel the green economy.”
The bill picked up steam in late December in the lame-duck session of the Legislature, at a time when then-Gov. Chris Christie said he would only sign it if it was limited to the nuclear subsidy and did not include renewable energy provisions.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he’s pushing for fast action because the plants produce nearly 40 percent of New Jersey’s energy – not just because they’re in his legislative district.
“This cannot just sit back and wait until we get there,” Sweeney said. “You know, everybody says, ‘What’s the rush?’ The rush is thousands of jobs. It’s our environment.”
Under the revised bill, nuclear plants could still get a subsidy through zero emission credits. In December, it was projected that the earlier version of the bill could cost the average ratepayer $31 to $41 a year to provide a subsidy that could reach $300 million a year.
The cost of the new incarnation of the bill isn’t known. The changes expand the plan to also focus on energy storage to help the viability of renewables, accelerated solar credits, a standard for reducing energy consumption and programs to help wind-energy equipment manufacturers.
“This bill is now greener than Ireland,” Smith said.
However, environmental groups still oppose the bill. And critics say even the expanded powers for the Board of Public Utilities to review Public Service Enterprise Group’s books isn’t enough.
PSEG chief executive officer Ralph Izzo said sharing sensitive financial information publicly would undercut the nuclear plants’ competitiveness in power auctions, speeding their demise. He has said the plants could start losing money within two years, in the face of low-cost natural gas from fracking.
“We will absolutely – you have my firm commitment – we will give the BPU whatever information they need to determine the economic viability of those plants,” Izzo said.
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