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NJ’s solar warfare rages on

By: Dave Neese |

Arabian Peninsula sheikhs don’t own the wind. And American oil industry fat cats don’t own the sun. So New Jersey’s aggressive push for renewable energy’s gotta be a win-win proposition. Right?

That’s a fiercely debated question, it turns out. And the debate pits two of the state’s behemoth business interests against each other — the Chemical Industry Council of New Jersey vs. Public Service Electric & Gas. They’re the King Kong and Godzilla of the Garden State’s special interests.

PSE&G boasts $31.7 billion in annual revenues. With 10,000 employees, the state’s biggest utility ranked 240th on the Forbes 500 list of America’s biggest enterprises in 2012. The Chemical Industry Council — the Trenton lobbying arm for 70 manufacturing companies in the state — boasts 50,000 industry employees and a membership encompassing a $27-billion chunk of New Jersey’s economy, nearly one-quarter of its total manufacturing base.

The contentiousness between the two may surprise those who view big business interests as a monolithic force with a unified agenda. Not quite so in this case. The chemical industry lobby says Public Service is frittering away time and effort — and consumers’ dollars — promoting renewable energy pipe dreams, especially solar projects.

Public Service, in the chemical industry’s view, ought to be focusing its efforts on ways to reduce its electricity bills. For New Jersey industry, those bills are 59 percent higher than the national average for industry, says Hal Bozarth, the Chemical Industry Council’s executive director.

It’s a money, not an academic issue, for the council. Bozarth maintains that a Public Service solar project expansion given a recent nod by state regulators — to be subsidized by ratepayers — will add $168,000 a year to average-size member companies’ electric bills and some $700,000 more to the biggest company bill. “All this for energy that’s 40-60 percent more expensive than what we have now,” says Bozarth. It’s a “lose-lose proposition,” he adds. Rather than pushing solar, Public Service should be looking for ways to lower rates for both businesses and households, he says.

Public Service says it favors a broad lineup of power-generation sources. But the utility sees renewables — especially solar — as one of the energy waves of the future. A Public Service subsidiary operation, in fact, has invested in solar projects in Arizona, Ohio, Florida and Delaware. The utility’s president and chief operating officer, Ralph LaRossa, says Public Service is determined to go with solar “as far as we can go.” “We want to support solar in a big way,” he adds. Indeed, Public Service already has. Solar arrays are visible locally in Trenton, Hamilton and Lawrence plus elsewhere north to south, from Bergen to Gloucester County. Public Service boasts that it’s now one of the most “solar-connected” utilities in America.