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Nuclear subsidy bill revised to add support for renewable energy

Lawmakers gave the nuclear subsidy bill a makeover, and the tweaked version now adds supports for solar and offshore wind, green renewable energy sources. But its heart is still nuclear, asking ratepayers to provide $300 million a year for PSEG’s Salem County reactors. The company says it can’t compete against cheap natural gas and will have to close the plants without a ratepayer subsidy, but not everyone agrees.

“We need to look at, are they unprofitable? If they’re going to become unprofitable, when is that likely going to happen?” asked Stefanie Brand, the director of NJ’s Division of Rate Counsel. “Ratepayers are not a bottomless pit. There is a limit to how much we can pay and keep living in the state affordably, keep businesses operating in this state.”

The Division of Rate Counsel is alarmed because PSEG refuses to open its books and prove financial need. The bill actually shields access to PSEG’s financial information. Only the Board of Public Utilities gets to look at it. PSEG calls the data proprietary and says it’s an unregulated industry not subject to the Rate Counsel’s oversight.

“If we made that information available, we would just accelerate the demise of these plants. Having said that, what this bill does is create a maximum, a cap, and gives the BPU flexibility to spend less than that cap,” said PSEG Chair and CEO Ralph Izzo.

“This only provides a process. There’s no guaranteed set subsidy. It guarantees a process to be reviewed,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, who sponsored the bill. “If the plants were to close, then a subsidy would be made available by the BPU, and the BPU would determine that.”

“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 our 100 percent clean energy future,” Murphy said.

The bill’s supporters note it refocuses on green, renewable energy at Gov. Phil Murphy’s request. It looks at strengthening the electric grid and its storage capacity, reworks subsidies for solar and wind, but could also raise rates, sponsors admit.

“Everyone wants a clean environment. The environment has a cost,” said Sweeney.

“They said they were going to deal with other forms of energy, and all they did was give themselves green cover in a bill that’s really about taking money from the ratepayers and subsidizing PSEG,” said NJ Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.

Average ratepayers would pony up $40 more a year, but some businesses fear it’s unaffordable for manufacturers.

“Some of my members, the additional cost of this nuclear tax, would be over $700,000 a year just for one facility. On average, most of my facilities will probably be paying between $150,000 to $500,000 in new energy bills, and I don’t know how that attracts people to come and setup business and expand in New Jersey,” said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey.

The committee didn’t vote on the bill. It moves to the Appropriations Committee for consideration on Feb. 5, and there will probably be more changes.