New Jersey is poised to become a national leader in renewable energy by virtue of pending legislation that would substantially decrease the Garden State’s greenhouse-gas emissions through an ambitious Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS). An RPS is a regulatory mandate that requires utility companies to obtain a certain percentage of the energy they sell from renewable sources such as wind and solar, or purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) from qualifying energy sources. Recently passed by the State Senate, a new bill would require utilities to source 80 percent of their electricity from renewable energy by 2050. If the General Assembly passes the bill and it survives the pen of Governor Christie, utilities must procure 11 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2017, with an increase every five years of approximately 10 percent until the 80 percent threshold is reached in 2050.
Although New Jersey passed its original RPS mandate in 1999, and has since updated its program to reach 20 percent by 2020-21 (including a solar energy “carve out” requirement of nearly 4 percent), the ambitious new bill faces an uncertain outcome. First, although the bill already has passed one legislative chamber, the Senate vote was strictly divided along party lines. Second, the General Assembly, which is the next destination for S1707, delayed voting on a similar Senate bill in December 2015. However, this General Assembly, like the Senate, has a Democratic majority; thus, it seems likely that the bill would pass. Finally, the bill faces a veto-threat by Governor Christie, which could be overcome by a two-thirds majority in both houses. In this scenario, a lack of bi-partisan support could doom the legislation due to a failure to obtain the requisite super-majority vote to overturn a veto.
The bill also may be perceived as political by some or a “hot potato.” In addition to an increased RPS mandate, the legislation would allow the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) to establish an “emissions portfolio standard applicable to all electric power suppliers and basic generation service providers, upon a finding that [t]he standard is necessary as part of a plan to enable the State to meet federal Clean Air Act or State ambient air quality standards.” The provision may reflect the State Senate’s desire to assure New Jersey’s compliance with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation presently under court review that seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions under authority of the Clean Air Act. In an omnibus litigation pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, twenty-seven states, including Governor Christie’s administration, seek to block the Plan’s implementation. Recently, the Supreme Court stayed the regulation and suspended any deadlines for state compliance until resolution of the litigation.
Another possible objection to the N.J. bill—based on the reaction to a similarly aggressive RPS in California—may be its potential significant implications for the power grid. A review of a study concerning the potential impact of California’s plan to increase renewables to 50 percent by 2030 provides insight into the challenges that such measures may pose. That study found that an aggressive RPS could result in over-generation of renewable energy. The study showed that once California reaches a 50 percent RPS, excess power would be generated for 23% of annual hours. Such an occurrence could result in grid forecast uncertainty, which is very costly for utilities. Thus, New Jersey lawmakers instructed the BPU to concomitantly evaluate how to ameliorate solar energy volatility. It may behoove the BPU to also look at longer-term grid strategies to mitigate the substantial increase in renewable energy. Such viable mitigative methods may include requiring steps such as energy storage, smart inverters with future solar photo-voltaic installations, or encouraging a diverse renewable energy portfolio. While each of these measures may come with its own political baggage, the consideration of such grid solutions may be the palliative that enables New Jersey to substantially increase its RPS.