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N.J. interest groups form coalition to take on electric utilities’ planned rate increases

By: Alexi Friedman |

Add up the number of proposed infrastructure and solar projects, rate hikes and storm-related recovery requests now on the table from New Jersey’s three largest utilities and the total is about $8 billion.

Separately, a variety of interest groups have called on New Jersey regulators and lawmakers to take a closer look at those projects and their costs, which if approved get passed on to ratepayers.

This morning, a handful of those organizations hoping to bring more attention to their cause will announce the creation of the New Jersey Coalition for Affordable Power.

The coalition of five consumer, commercial and industrial groups say it will urge the state Board of Public Utilities to ensure “that only real solutions and responsible investments are made,” and that residents and businesses “are protected from unfair rate hikes.”

“Whatever investment gets done, utilities are using ratepayer money,” said Elvin Montero, a spokesman for Chemistry Council of New Jersey, one of the participating groups. The council represents more than 100 manufacturers.

The others in the coalition are AARP’s state chapter, New Jersey Large Energy Users Coalition, New Jersey Public Interest Research Group and New Jersey Citizen Action.
Today’s announcement will take place at the statehouse in Trenton.

“The coalition is another voice trying to put a spotlight on this issue,” Montero said.

“These increases are not a done deal. There are no blank checks, and utilities can’t just utilize Sandy as a backdrop. We’re not saying certain things don’t have to be done, but let’s make sure we’re investing correctly, and prudently. The consumer is taking all the risk here.”

In March, PSE&G filed its $3.9 billion, 10-year Energy Strong infrastructure upgrade request. PSE&G, the state’s largest utility, cited Hurricane Sandy’s devastation to its network as a reason for the massive investment. Jersey Central Power & Light and Atlantic City Electric have pending rate cases before the Board and requests for storm-related costs they incurred.

PSE&G said opponents of Energy Strong represent a small portion of the company’s 2.1 million customers in New Jersey. Spokeswoman Kathy Fitzgerald said 38 municipalities support the plan, along with Hudson, Somerset and Passaic county governments and the New Jersey and South Jersey chambers of commerce.

“They all endorsed Energy Strong as a good solution for New Jersey’s energy infrastructure,” she said. “What did Sandy cost the people of New Jersey? What did it cost the economy?”

JCP&L spokesman Ron Morano said the BPU “rate-making process allows for all parties to participate and for customers to be heard. It’s not ours to say whether there needs to be additional parties or coalitions formed.”

A spokesman for Atlantic City Electric, Frank Tedesco, said the coalition “has a right to voice their opinion.” He added “Atlantic City Electric’s goal is to improve reliability, minimize power outages and protect its infrastructure from storm damage.”

But AARP’s associate state director Evelyn Liebman said in a state where electricity prices are among the highest in the nation, “one of our concerns is the cumulative effect. There are billions on the table here. “Just the sheer size of the requests, in terms of rate increases, gives rise to the need for the coalition, and for a strong voice for ratepayers.”