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Experts: Clean energy goals still a priority, post-Sandy

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Hurricane Sandy has forced a re-examination of the state's utility infrastructure, but a panel of energy leaders Friday said that doesn't mean the state's clean energy goals must take a back seat.

“It’s not really an either/or decision,” said Thomas J. Massaro, vice president of marketing and business intelligence at New Jersey Natural Gas. “We’re doing both of these in parallel.”

Massaro was one of four panelists tackling the question of whether clean energy can become a major driver in New Jersey’s economy. The forum, held at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, was organized by NJ Spotlight.

Like every other public policy discussion of late, Hurricane Sandy became a major focus of the discussion.

Ralph LaRossa, president and CEO of Public Service Electric and Gas, said Sandy should force a broad conversation about infrastructure.

“It’s not just electric and gas,” LaRossa said. “…everything has to be re-thought.

Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University, said the state must take a realistic look at what kinds of storms and weather it is likely to face in the coming years, but also balance the need with the costs to ratepayers.

Felder’s center is currently doing work for the Board of Public Utilities to determine the costs and benefits of certain infrastructure changes.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway), who chairs the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said the idea of totally mitigating storm risk is unfeasible.

“A system that will never go down is one that you can’t afford,” he said.

While Sandy is having a major impact on state energy policy, the falling price of natural gas is arguably having an even larger impact on energy markets. The lower electricity rates made possible by lower natural gas prices, for instance, are taking away some of the incentive to go solar, while also spurring the construction of new natural gas-fueled plants.

LaRossa said he’s in favor of an “all of the above” energy policy, that utilizes renewable energy in tandem with things like natural gas and nuclear.

For instance, LaRossa said he thinks the best long-term solution for vehicle fuel would be to power passenger cars by electricity and power larger vehicles by natural gas.

The latter is already becoming a trend. Electric vehicles, however, have not caught on as fast. LaRossa said a better battery is needed for that to happen.

Smith said the state must take climate change seriously, and that means playing a role to help overcome economic and technical challenges to the growth of clean energy.

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