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    Clean-energy batteries will need subsidies tooBatteries for clean energy will need ratepayer subsidies too


    November 16, 2022 - Press of Atlantic City

     

      New Jersey ratepayers and taxpayers have poured a lot of money into giving the northern, often cloudy state lots of solar panels and what will be hundreds of wind turbines offshore.

      The state's 163,000 solar panel installations have the potential to product 4.1 gigawatts of clean energy. The current goal for offshore wind projects is the potential to produce 11 gigawatts.

      This is not potential in the ordinary use of the word, though, since solar and offshore wind will seldom if ever produce that much electricity. There usually are some clouds in New Jersey skies, often enough to blot out the sun. Wind is more reliable out in the ocean but not guaranteed, and when there is wind its speed varies and therefore so does the power produced by giant turbines.

      One thing reliable to the point of certainty is that New Jersey residents and businesses need electricity all of the time. Always a lot, sometimes so much that the combined sources of power generation can't quite fill the need.

      For the foreseeable future, therefore, the state will still need large amounts of power produced on demand by nuclear and natural gas generating stations.

      Offshore wind and solar sometimes will produce more power than immediately required. Saving that electricity until customers need it would make clean energy more efficient and dependable.

      Someday battery technology will make large scale power storage cost-effective in New Jersey. Until then, you guessed it, state government wants to compel ratepayers and taxpayers to create what technology and markets say is not ready for prime time.

      The state Board of Public Utilities recently outlined a plan for company incentives to reach 2,000 megawatts of energy storage by 2030. New Jersey had a goal of storing 600 megawatts by the end of 2021, but only had 497 megawatts by then - and 420 megawatts of that was from a hydro storage facility in Blairstown, Warren County, built in the early 1960s. (This pumps water uphill when electricity is abundant, and runs it downhill into water turbines when it's not.)

      As usual, the state hopes federal subsidies cover much of the cost of massive batteries to store power, reducing the need for ratepayer-funded subsidies. But since hope is not a strategy, state Democrats have introduced legislation to order the BPU to start a pilot energy storage program with $60 million in corporate subsidies paid with charges on monthly utility bills.

      The legislation cleared the state Senate on a vote of 27-13 at the end of June, and has been in the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee since then.

      New subsidies worry Brian Lipman, director of the Division of Rate Counsel which looks out for the public's interest. "Once we start subsidizing this market we are never going to stop,'' he told NJ Spotlight. Solar industry subsidies were supposed to end after they reached $3 billion, but instead have continued at nearly $1 billion a year.

      "I don't know how we will pay for all these important things and not put ratepayers underwater,'' Lipman said. Monthly bills will also likely increase to pay for grid upgrades required by energy storage. "It appears ratepayers, at the end of the day, are going to pay a chunk of this bill,'' he said.

      The Division of Rate Counsel opposes the legislation, which would use 17% of the state's annual $344 million clean-energy budget, which residences and businesses fund through surcharges on their monthly bills.

      The New Jersey Conservation Foundation questioned the need to take money from utility customers for energy storage subsidies. "Do we need to expend ratepayer money to address a problem that does not exist today, when we don't have high levels of renewables?'' said the foundation's Barbara Blumenthal. When there is more clean energy and better batteries, energy storage systems will become lucrative and draw plenty of private investment.

      Since all of the state's seemingly virtuous responses to an exaggerated climate crisis would hardly make a measurable difference in global greenhouse gas emissions, the urgency of state officials to embrace obviously premature or suboptimal technologies such as current battery storage must be driven by other interests. Politics is surely one; crony capitalism looks like another. Neither is a reason for enlarging further the crushing financial burden already headed for ratepayers.

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