The heat is on: Gov. Murphy wants more wind power, cleaner energy — and BPU President Fiordaliso welcomes the pressure

By Brett Johnson
Trenton | May 23, 2018 at 7:05 am
From our print edition

Behind the scenes of politicians’ energy proclamations are agencies responsible for turning words into action.

So, when Gov. Phil Murphy called on New Jersey to pick up the pace of development of offshore wind farms — with the new administration setting a goal of 3,500 megawatts in offshore wind capacity, a higher projection than any other state in the region — it sent the Board of Public Utilities into overdrive.

The BPU is both a utility regulator and the de facto Office of Clean Energy. And there’s a new face leading this Legislature-designated promoter of a greener New Jersey.

Joe Fiordaliso, whom Murphy appointed as the BPU’s president at the beginning of the year, isn’t exactly new to the agency; he has served as a commissioner there since 2005, based on a nomination from former Gov. Richard Codey.

But the clean energy function of the BPU is certainly taking on a new importance under Murphy and his aggressive renewable energy agenda.

Fiordaliso is charged up about it. ROI-NJ talked to the busy BPU president about why that is.

ROI-NJ: Could you start off by talking about what’s going into implementing the governor’s directive on wind energy?

Joe Fiordaliso: We’re very excited about offshore wind. It’s taking New Jersey in a direction that we have not gone in up until now. It has been a long time coming for the state. We’re working closely with other state agencies on this. And we are facilitating the creation of an offshore wind strategic plan to get things into motion. We’re putting out requests for consultants and so on for that process.

We’re excited about it for a number of reasons. Obviously, the whole area off of the Atlantic Coast, particularly the northern part, is very conducive to wind-generated power; the farther south you go along the coast, the less effective it is. If we can harness it by reaching the goal Gov. Murphy committed to of 3,500 MW by 2030, it will supply enough energy for 20 percent of our energy users. So, it’s quite a journey we’re going on at the moment. We’re proceeding with this, but the process is going to take time.

The BPU was also directed to begin a rule-making process for the funding mechanism, or, as they call it, the OREC. We’ll be doing that, too. We recently announced a hearing for May 8 in order for us to solicit comments on the rule-making process.

ROI: Obviously, the impact on ratepayers is a top concern of many Jerseyans. Is there any early indication of what that impact might be?

JF: There’s a lot to be determined regarding that. But I will make an analogy here: I’ve been around the BPU for a good number of years and, when I started, the cost of solar was astronomical; what we’ve seen over the years is that cost — for development, the parts, for everything involved — has been coming down dramatically. Eventually, the same thing is going to happen with wind.

Initially, yes, it might be expensive. What those numbers are is something I have no way of knowing at this point, not until we get our strategic plan and funding mechanism in place. That’s when it will be determined. But we want to surpass California as the greenest state in the union. That’s our goal. And we’re poised to do that, because the governor has set a goal of 100 percent of our energy generated by green sources by 2050. People look at green energy initiatives as an expensive proposition — and it can be initially, there’s no doubt about it. But you also have to look at the economic development that comes along with it, as far as jobs and ancillary industries that feed into it. We see an awful lot of positives as far as the economics are concerned.

ROI: Right after Murphy was elected, we spoke with Danish offshore wind developer Ørsted about its excitement that projects could get underway in the state. The firm, which just this month opened an Atlantic City headquarters, talked about how Europe has really taken advantage of wind power. Are you looking to places like that when thinking about how to pull this off locally?

JF: Europe is light-years ahead of us in terms of wind energy. They have great resources, because I don’t know that you have stronger winds than those you have in the North Sea. They’re right there, and they’ve been tapping that resource. Denmark gets at least half of its generated energy from wind. So, we have a lot to learn from places like that. And we’re receptive to learning. If New Jersey is to be open for business for wind energy, we have to be also open-minded and consider those who have gone before us and perfected a technology we want to expand here.

ROI: One of Murphy’s first major energy-related actions was to sign an executive order directing the state to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap and trade emissions program that former Gov. Chris Christie had pulled out of. What’s happening with that now?

JF: The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is the lead agency for, hopefully, restarting our participation in that program. We are in a supportive posture regarding that. They’re moving ahead, and we’re also moving ahead collectively, in getting our ducks in a row for that re-entry. I might add that it was a lot easier to withdraw than it is to re-enter. When the powers that be withdrew New Jersey, it was a lot simpler. But we think this is important to advancing a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and, again, it’s about mitigating the impacts of climate change. It’s an important pact for our region and one that, in my opinion, we never should’ve withdrawn from.

The BPU is happy to be involved and providing whatever support mechanisms we can to a process to re-enter this agreement — a process that has already begun. But it’s not a process that will conclude tomorrow. We don’t have a time frame for when it will happen. Some have indicated it might take up to two years, but I don’t know if that’s accurate.

ROI: What else is going on in the area of clean energy in the Garden State?

JF: The solar industry is still vibrant here. It slowed down over the past few years, but we’re re-energizing it. We used to be No. 2 behind California in terms of rankings and we’re now around No. 5. Today, we’re looking at about 90,000 or more solar installations, while back in 2000 we had only six. We’re continuing to move in the right direction. We’re promoting solar installations on landfills and brownfields, terrain that has few useful purposes otherwise.

Micro-grids are also becoming more in fashion. That evolved from Superstorm Sandy, during which some entities had micro-grids and were the only ones with power in the state. Along with that has come a lot more emphasis on energy efficiency. In general, we’re going to see a broadening of the clean energy portfolio under this governor. We’re looking at a lot of things. We’ve got all the potential for harnessing green energy as you can ask for.

ROI: How about nuclear? The state’s nuclear energy supply has had a couple of ups and downs, with the most recent news being the legislation passed last month to prevent the closure of the state’s threatened plants with new subsidies. Where do you stand on the fate of this energy source?

JF: While we don’t regulate nuclear power — no state agency does, as it’s a federal issue — in my personal opinion, it has to be part of the total equation. I’m concerned about the unfounded fear of nuclear power here in the United States. We’ve taken the steps necessary to make sure a Chernobyl is never going to happen. We’re very good as far as safety is concerned. Here in the state, 40 percent of energy generation is nuclear power. So, if you take that off the table, you have to make up 40 percent of our energy from somewhere else — losing out on an energy source with zero emissions.

ROI: Especially given that you’re going to be doing a lot of promoting green energy in this role, what is it that keeps you personally invested in this?

JF: One of the things that has prompted and encouraged many people to get into green energy — it’s also the most important thing, in my opinion — is the fact that we’re creating an environment that’s a lot better than the one my generation inherited. These efforts are going to, hopefully, reduce the potentially harmful impacts of climate change. I also believe we have a moral obligation to future obligations to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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