Meeting in the middle: Is it possible we’re going to have 2-sided discussions on electrification?

Senate bill 3672 was pulled for more discussion — so, let’s have it

There’s good news regarding electrification in New Jersey. No, we still don’t have an accurate cost assessment, but we do seem to have an understanding that we need to have a discussion about all things involved in the state meeting its clean energy goals.

That’s the desire of state Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Hillsborough) and Eric DeGesero, the director of the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey, in the aftermath of an electrification bill, S3672, being pulled from the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway), requires the Board of Public Utilities to establish a beneficial building electrification program and requires electric public utilities to prepare and implement building electrification plans.

Zwicker, after hearing from a wide range of constituents, said it became clear that more discussion is needed. And, he said, it’s clear this is about so much more than gas stoves and mandates.

“For me, when I have multiple labor groups, businesses, business groups, all saying, ‘Can we take a look at this more?’ it is way beyond the people saying, ‘Don’t you dare take our gas stoves away,’” he said.

“That’s why, when I heard from so many groups, I said: ‘Wait a minute. Let’s just make sure we’re good here. We don’t need to rush this through.’

“Too often, we end up having to do cleanup bills, we have to fix things after the fact. So, I talked to Sen. Smith, and we said, ‘Alright, let’s just pull it down.’”

And have meetings. And actual conversations.

“Let’s see what’s going on — beyond the rhetoric, beyond the headlines, beyond whatever else — and see if we may need to make any amendments that we didn’t have in front of us before we put it up for a hearing.”

DeGesero was thrilled to hear it … for many reasons, including this:

“People were saying, ‘Oh, this is just a fuel merchants thing,’” he said. “No, it’s not. I’m just the guy herding all the cats. There are a lot of people who have a lot of questions about this.

“On Feb. 15, the governor said, ‘Nobody’s coming into your kitchen, nobody’s taking your gas stove, no one is going to force you to do anything in any way.’ Then, 13 days later, Sen. Smith introduces a bill that appears to be moving toward mandating electrification.

“That the senators heard all these questions underscores what I’ve been saying the entire time: We need to have a big-picture discussion about the direction we’re going.”

When and how this discussion takes place remains to be seen.

Zwicker said sooner rather than later. And he said he’s not looking for a town hall (where both sides yell at each other) or a Senate hearing (that will be filled with grandstanding prepared statements).

“It means we’re going to start having some one-on-one discussions with representatives of the various groups specific to the bill,” he said. “And I think that they will need to discuss the bigger questions, which go beyond this bill. We need to figure out how we’re going to reach our goals.”

DeGesero said he’s ready. For all of it.

“This is a discussion that is far greater than Senate bill 3672,” he said. “There are just too many questions, for too big a policy, that haven’t been answered.”

DeGesero admits he doesn’t have all the answers. He also admits some of the goals of the electrification side make sense — from an environmental standpoint.

“Not having any air pollution has a huge public health benefit,” he said. “I’d lack credibility if I didn’t make that statement. But there’s an associated cost with it — and we just keep getting back to the same thing. My argument is the cost, their argument is public health.

“Their biggest strength is no air pollution, their biggest downfall is cost. My strongest strength is cost. My weakest one is public health. So, we need to have a discussion about that.”

Zwicker is ready, too.

“I think it won’t be clear what the various stakeholder issues are until we have these meetings,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that we need to, as a state, do our share of getting the United States off greenhouse gases and the burning of fossil fuels.

“In no way do I think that pulling this bill is proxy for, ‘We need to pump the brakes on New Jersey’s climate and greenhouse gas reduction plans.’

“It just means that change is difficult. And we want to make sure that we’re very thoughtful and mindful about how we do this — always thinking about both the environment and the crisis and what is the impact on ratepayers, homeowners and business owners.”

Sounds like it’s going to be a heck of a meeting.