Another chance for wind program

Another chance for wind program

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Offshore wind farms could be built miles off the coast of the Atlantic. - (COURTESY FISHERMEN'S ENERGY)

It has been more than four years since Gov. Chris Christie signed the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act, a measure that was intended to spark the creation of a new green industry in New Jersey and put the state at the forefront of innovation in the sector.

But between delays and some allegations of politics being played, four years have now come and gone — and New Jersey has nothing to show for it.

At the forefront of the issue is a project for a 25-megawatt wind farm three miles off the coast of Atlantic City put forth by Cape May-based Fishermen's Energy. Despite being ready to go, the Board of Public Utilities has on multiple occasions rejected the project's applications to join OREC, short for the state's offshore renewable energy credit program, on the grounds that it would impose high costs on ratepayers.

But is that what's really at play?

Some say Christie has lost his enthusiasm for the offshore wind energy program. Others say Christie's enthusiasm for higher office has forced him to shelve the idea in deference to a national base.

Paul Gallagher, Fishermen's chief operating officer and general counsel, isn't speculating on politics, but admits he doesn't know what to think.

He just knows he'll go before the BPU again next month seeking approval of his proposal — a $188 million project that he said would create 500 new jobs and is armed with $47 million in recently secured federal grants. That funding, and a dispute between the company and the BPU over the proposed OREC price, led a state appellate court to rule in August that the BPU needed to reconsider the project's application, landing Fishermen's a spot on November's agenda.

Will it make a difference? Gallagher won't guess.

“I've been living with this for four years and I can't speculate as to what motivates the BPU,” Gallagher said.

The BPU says it can't say. According to a BPU spokesman, neither staff nor any board commissioners can comment on the project, as it is a “pending matter.”

So what happened?

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), in a meeting with NJBIZ's editorial board earlier this month, said Christie's political ambitions are at the root of the issue.

Since the governor “has a look nationally now,” he's weighing the interests of possible mega-donors, particularly Charles and David Koch, against moving to further develop the state's offshore wind energy program, Sweeney said.

“The Koch brothers — they don't like clean energy,” Sweeney said. “So the BPU never puts the (regulations) in place.” 

Sweeney added that New Jersey could have been the “leader in the country for offshore wind,” but that “because of other aspirations, it doesn't go forward.” 

“When we throw away opportunities to create jobs and create industries and the spinoff industries that go with those jobs, it's problematic,” Sweeney said.

The Fishermen's Energy project, in particular, “should be up and running now,” but has been largely stalled due to the BPU receiving a “direction that's coming from the front office that this is not going to happen,” Sweeney said.

The governor's office did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.

Environment New Jersey Director Doug O'Malley said there is “nothing holding back New Jersey now other than Gov. Christie's intransigence and, sadly, even though offshore wind has bipartisan support in the state, the governor has his eyes on a different prize right now.”

“The governor (is) clearly positioning himself to run for president in 2016 and that has obvious policy ramifications here in New Jersey,” O'Malley said.

But whether it is rooted in politics or policy, the holdup may be costing more than just jobs. It may be costing New Jersey a leading spot in the industry — a place it seemed poised to secure four years ago.

Other states, particularly Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maryland, are moving aggressively in the development of their own offshore wind programs. In 2010, when Christie signed OWEDA, “New Jersey was the only state that had the cutting-edge legislation that we still have on the books,” Gallagher said, adding that with any new industry, moving to establish it first has its perks as “the bulk of it is going to land somewhere.”

That may have now changed.

“It's going to be a lot more competitive than it was had we been aggressive in 2011,” Gallagher said.

That's especially the case within the region itself, said Chris Long, an offshore wind and siting policy manager with the American Wind Energy Association.

“There is a lot of progress in many of the states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic,” Long said.

For Fishermen's, if there's room for hope, it's that one of the board's newest commissioners, former Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, has been a longtime industry supporter. In a 2013 NJBIZ story, Chivukula criticized Christie and the BPU for a “lack of leadership” in not doing more to usher in offshore wind energy projects.

As to whether having Chivukula, who left the Assembly last month after Christie appointed him to the BPU, now on the board will yield a different result, Gallagher said, “There's always hope.”

Gallagher said that while Fishermen's is “committed to New Jersey,” it “doesn't mean that we don't reserve the right to go elsewhere if we had to continue to wait for approval on this project for much longer.”

Eventually, the state will move forward with its offshore wind energy program, O'Malley said. But the opportunity to lead and not follow is quickly being squandered.

“Offshore wind is going to happen in New Jersey,” O'Malley said. “The potential is just too strong for us not to tap it. It's just that now New Jersey looks like it will be a Johnny-come-lately as opposed to a leader.”