Murphy’s green message has firms dreaming big

By Brett Johnson
New Jersey | Feb 1, 2018 at 12:55 pm
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It wasn’t in the opening remarks, not even close. But the word “aggressively” was used in the same sentence as “renewable energy” before Gov. Phil Murphy was done with his inaugural address.

That’s a strong word. And those in the business of being green certainly heard it.

It was only one line. But for the companies trying to a turn a profit in the business of sustainability, it’s exactly what they wanted to hear amid all the endless buzz in Trenton about what’s to come.

One man’s political rhetoric is another’s bottom line — especially in the renewable energy sector.

Michael Sinkebich Jr., an attorney and shareholder at the environmental issue-focused law firm Lieberman & Blecher P.C., said that every affirmation of the new Garden State leader’s stance on sustainability makes it more clear that the sector can expect a big local impact — even more than the one the president has had in the obverse.

“We honestly have not felt an overwhelming effect from what has come from President Donald Trump’s administration,” he said. “But I think we’re going to start feeling a change with the closer-to-home transition to Gov. Murphy, who ran on a traditional environmental platform with a focus on promoting clean energy in a state that’s well set up for it.”

This may become apparent on the issue of the Paris climate accord, which Trump has been opposed to and vowed to remove the country from.

Sinkebich said New Jersey seems likely to rejoin the accord, alongside a coalition of states working to uphold the international standards.

Sinkebich also expects Murphy to restore the state’s participation in efforts that his immediate predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie, had withdrawn New Jersey from, such as a regional emissions-curbing program.

“So, we can expect a lot of renewed energy on the horizon for climate change initiatives that, as a state, we have sidelined somewhat in previous years,” said Dennis Toft, a top New Jersey environmental attorney.

The state’s direction on these issues will be driven by Catherine McCabe, Murphy’s pick to replace Bob Martin at the Department of Environmental Protection after that Christie appointee spent eight years in the role. McCabe has worked in various roles at the EPA since 2005.

Toft, who is chair of the environmental practice at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C., said the longtime federal regulator will oversee air and water emissions from companies across the state. Assuaging concern that this foreshadows increased regulatory burden for business, Toft expects more in the way of extra emphasis on local utilities generating clean power.

“But there’s no doubt that utilities will have to get more renewable into the mix, and that could have an effect on utility prices for businesses,” he said.

Along with that may come encouragement of green business practices through a mix of new state incentives.

Certainly, the incentive structure around solar panel investment is something both Toft and Sinkebich mentioned they expected would be sorted out soon into Murphy’s term.

“Which means that businesses could really count on benefiting in the future — if they haven’t already — by going with solar energy,” Toft said.

Longtime solar crusader Lyle Rawlings couldn’t be more thrilled.

“We think solar’s prospects are great,” he said. “We know that Gov. Murphy, as an ambassador to Germany, saw the solar and renewable energy revolution there firsthand. So, he takes this very seriously.”

Rawlings is CEO and president of Advanced Solar Products Inc. and also a co-founder and president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association. In his advocacy for the industry, he has called for a stable incentive structure for solar investments. Subsidies available to solar panel ratepayers have waxed and waned, causing market reactions that have frozen the sector for periods of time.

He said that a lot of industry folks are working on what an incentive system that keeps the solar market thriving locally might ultimately look like. Murphy’s election signaled promise for that effort.

But Rawlings can’t help but wonder what will next shroud the sector.

“It’s a difficult industry — we call it the ‘solar coaster,’” he said. “Yet, that hasn’t held back progress. Solar has been more than 90 percent of the renewable energy built in the state so far. This spring, when it gets sunny, we expect solar to be providing 18 percent of energy throughout parts of the day across New Jersey.”

Conversation Starter

Reach Dennis Toft of Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi at: dtoft@csglaw.com or (973) 530-2014.