Still a Work in Progress, Nuclear Subsidy Bill Held in Committee

NJ Spotlight- As proposed legislation goes through successive iterations, it seems to alienate more potential backers and beneficiaries

New Jersey lawmakers yesterday held off advancing a highly contentious bill that could provide hundreds of millions of dollars in ratepayer subsidies to nuclear power plants.

As dozens of lobbyists milled around in the Senate Budget Committee, Senate President Steven Sweeney told reporters his bill (S-877) would not come up for a vote ''just for further discussion with the front office.''

The legislation, a version of which died in the lame-duck session early last month, is pitting some of the most powerful interest groups in Trenton against each other as backers keep overhauling the measure to win its passage.

Far from original bill

Originally a bill designed to prop up economically challenged nuclear plants operated by Public Service Enterprise Group, the legislation has morphed into a virtual and hasty overhaul of the state's energy policy. As such, it now incorporates new financial incentives for solar, energy efficiency projects, and other clean-energy initiatives, such as energy storage.

Its drawback is its projected cost. The nuclear subsidies could cost ratepayers up to $300 million a year. Over the next 15 years, the total hit to utility customers could top $4 billion when solar and nuclear subsidies are tallied, according to an economic analysis for the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel.

That projection, however, was based on a revamped bill seen for the first time 11 days ago. A new version began circulating Sunday afternoon, and as Sweeney indicated, is still undergoing further revisions. A new version of the bill should be available by the end of the week and likely will be voted on by the committee on February 15.

Significant changes to status quo

A draft of that version, obtained by NJ Spotlight, incorporates significant new elements, including changes to the state's system of funding solar and new mandates to reduce energy use.

For instance, one provision in the latest version would require commercial office buildings to cut their electric and natural gas use by 20 percent by 2025. Another change would require 35 percent of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind power by 2025.

Given the intense lobbying and interest in the legislation, it is unclear what other changes may be in store for the bill and what components are eliminated.

"There's been a lot of work done on the bill, some of which is problematic,'' acknowledged Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

Some representatives of the solar sector are worried about provisions in the bill that would cut in half compliance payments made by power suppliers as a way to comply with renewable-energy mandates. If the payments are too low, they fear it will drastically reduce the amount of money they receive for solar credits for electricity generated by solar panels. That could dry up investment in the sector.

"Every time this nuclear subsidy bill is held or discussed in a meeting, it gets worse,'' said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Each day it gets worse and more expensive.''


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