The New Jersey offshore wind initiative took root in 2019 when the state issued its Energy Master Plan, in which Gov. Phil Murphy placed an emphasis on renewable energy in the state. It became essential to Murphy’s goal of a 100% clean-energy economy.
Murphy called offshore wind a “once-in-a-generation opportunity that allows us to protect our environment while significantly expanding and securing the state’s economy for the immediate and long term.” A tall order: Make a major contribution to the struggle with climate change and simultaneously benefit the state’s economy in a big way.
If those are the desired ends, offshore wind has had a rocky start.
At first, active opposition to the offshore wind initiative was small and heavily focused on visual aesthetics. Then an unusual mortality event that federal agencies say has existed since 2016 gathered momentum as whales and other sea mammals began washing up on our shoreline in numbers that homeowners who had lived here for decades had never seen.
The opposition to offshore wind grew as federal officials hypothesized that the sea mammal fatalities came from increased interactions with large cargo ships. The argument might have been plausible except for the almost ironclad guarantee they gave that the sea mammal fatalities had nothing to do with offshore wind.
As Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, put it: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The certitude with which the federal government responded so quickly undermined the veracity of the response in many eyes.
Then we find that the rules were changing and no one was really giving a reasoned explanation as to why. The Danish firm Orsted bought out the interests of its American partner.
Was the American partner used to get the initial approvals and now was no longer useful? If offshore wind is the emerging industry of the future, why did the American partner back away? There never was a satisfactory explanation given. It just happened.
A preferred route for high-voltage transmission cables also damaged the early support for offshore wind. The route across Ocean City beaches and streets was rejected by local elected officials at the municipal and county levels. Their objections were pushed aside by an appeal to the five-member appointed Board of Public Utilities (BPU).
We never understood why this was the preferred route. The financial analysis was never shown. Yet the BPU exercised new power given to it by Trenton to overrule land-use decisions traditionally made by local governing bodies. It was another reason to oppose offshore wind that could capture the support of people who might not have rallied to the issue of visual aesthetics or even whale fatalities.
The rules changed again! Tax credits promised to New Jersey ratepayers were suddenly redirected to Orsted even though the Danish firm had promised to give those tax credits back to ratepayers. The wind farm developer claimed it needed help due to high inflation and supply chain problems. The fact that ratepayers were living with the impact of high inflation as well was never considered. The fact that this experienced firm did a poor job in its original bid in terms of factoring in contingencies was also overlooked.
Orsted got the initial authorization for Ocean Wind 1 with an American partner while also promising to return the tax credits to the ratepayers. Now, the firm buys out its American partner, keeps the tax credits and is even asking for more public assistance. When does Orsted have to face problems of its own making?
Let’s keep going for just a moment more.
This offshore wind scenario is part of Murphy’s larger goal to free the state from reliance on fossil fuels in a transition that is expected to be both rapid and all-encompassing. What could possibly go wrong here?
Murphy lays out goals for electrification of homes and commercial structures, instructing the BPU to incentivize this wholesale transition to electricity for heating and appliances.
He then lays out rules that would prevent the sale of new nonelectric vehicles in the state by 2035, a little over one decade away.
No one explains how we are going to get a significant increase in the amount of electric power generated and delivered in that time period. No one also explains how we are going to take renewable sources of electricity that are by their nature plagued with reliability issues and turn them into a source of continuous reliable and more abundant power.
Now, add the icing on this cake of uncertainty when Orsted says its first great venture, Ocean Wind 1, is already delayed two years from the agreed-upon start date promised when it received its initial authorizations from the BPU.
We are not saying that offshore wind is a project that should or should not be supported. What we are saying here is that the selling of offshore wind and the building of public support for it has been a monumentally mishandled endeavor.
A top-down aggressive push fueled by a sense of urgency to respond to a threat left no room for building a consensus on how or if to proceed. Mishandling of events, with little real effort from officials to explain why what is happening is indeed happening, has allowed a coalition of opposition to expand. That is a reality.
Is offshore energy development to be a part of New Jersey’s future? We elected Murphy to be our governor, and he established the state’s Energy Master Plan with his Executive Order No. 28, which directed the BPU to lead the development of the master plan as a statewide blueprint to achieve a 100% clean-energy economy by 2050.
In his committing our state to this gargantuan energy transition without the involvement of New Jersey’s citizens via our elected senators and assemblymen and women, he has foregone essential input. Even if we assume that our efforts are prudent, in light of the problems, is wind even the best way to go?
We are not told why reliable 24/7 nuclear power was rejected, nor why it is necessary for government to drive the initiative. The speed with which this major project has been driven has deprived us of the requisite time to do our best thinking and planning.
From the Bible: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed.” Proverbs 15:22