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Is New Jersey just tilting at windmills?

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When he signed the 2010 law creating an offshore wind incentive, Gov. Chris Christie said the goal was to make New Jersey “a national leader in the wind power movement.”

Today that promise looks like nothing but hot air.

The leading player in New Jersey's would-be offshore wind industry has been hobbled by ongoing delays from regulators, and while New Jersey struggles to make the economic case for wind, other states are jumping ahead of in the race to become the epicenter for offshore wind.

Cape May-based Fishermen's Energy has all the permits it needs to build a 25-megawatt wind farm three miles off the Atlantic City coast, but it can't start construction until the Board of Public Utilities rules on the firm's application to join the offshore renewable energy certificate program, called OREC.

The BPU had indicated it would give Fishermen's an answer by the end of the month, but the item was left off last week's agenda. A handful of public hearings scheduled for May were canceled four days before they were set to begin. A BPU spokesman declined to comment, saying the matter is ongoing; Fishermen's spokeswoman Rhonda Jackson said the new decision date is late July.

"This was the first time this process has ever happened, so everybody is learning through this process, and it's taking time," Jackson said.

Others aren't so diplomatic, such as the chair of the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.

A buoy measuring the strength of the wind blowing off of Atlantic City’s coast.
A buoy measuring the strength of the wind blowing off of Atlantic City’s coast. - ()

"It's lack of leadership," said Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset), arguing the BPU and Christie administration haven't done enough to implement the program. Chivukula's sponsoring legislation to extend the deadline for a $100 million tax credit for manufacturers supporting the offshore wind industry. The previous program, a set-aside in the Urban Transit Hub tax credit program, expired in December.

Advocates say the issue is frustrating because of the economic potential offshore wind offers.

The OREC incentive would work much like the state's solar incentive, by requiring energy suppliers to purchase offshore wind power, thus guaranteeing a buyer — and revenue — for developers of up to 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind generation capacity.

A filing by Fishermen's Energy said the project would have a net economic benefit of more than $1 billion, and a Chinese wind turbine manufacturer has publicly said it will build a plant in South Jersey if Fishermen's is approved.

But in a BPU filing, economist David Dismukes, speaking for the Division of Rate Counsel, called Fishermen's economic assumptions "flawed and unreasonable."

The dispute is significant because projects must pass a cost-benefit analysis to join OREC, and that's more difficult for smaller projects like Fishermen's, which can't reach the same economies of scale as larger projects farther out to sea. It's also complicated by the shale gas boom out west, which is driving down the cost of traditional energy, thus widening the gap between traditional and green energy.

On the other hand, Fishermen's sees its smaller project — which is in state, not federal, waters — as a necessary stepping stone to prove offshore wind is viable in the United States. The company plans a much larger wind farm if the pilot is successful.

Chris Long, manager of offshore wind and siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association, said there has been progress elsewhere, including the planting of a single offshore wind turbine in Maine. Other states moving aggressively toward offshore wind development include Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Virginia.

Jackson said the project would be an economic driver for the state and help spark a much larger industry. She said the current price tag is about $200 million, but federal incentives will significantly cut the cost to New Jersey ratepayers, so long as the BPU acts quickly enough. Developers must begin their projects before Dec. 31 to qualify for many of the incentives.

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @jaredkaltwasser

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