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BPU wants to hire outside expert to help breathe some life into offshore wind

The state plans to bring on a consultant to advise it on developing offshore wind farms, a step that may finally move New Jersey to act on a five-year-old legislative mandate.

Board of Public Utilities President Richard Mroz said the yet-to-be-hired consultant would help the state write regulations essential to developing wind turbines off the Jersey coast. The regulations, four years behind schedule in being adopted, would spell out a financing mechanism to have utility customers fund the projects.

Mroz told the Senate Judiciary Committee of the agency’s plans during a reconfirmation hearing yesterday, at which senators criticized the board for not moving quicker to comply with a law aimed at promoting offshore wind farms. Mroz and fellow BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso won confirmation from the Senate later in the day.

“Why hasn’t the BPU done its job?’’ asked Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a leading proponent of the state moving more aggressively on developing renewable energy. “Institutionally, the BPU has failed us in the establishment of wind energy.’’

Without the regulations, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to line up financing from Wall Street to help fund the projects, which could easily run to more than $1 billion. The regulations would pay the developers for the electricity the wind turbines produce through credits paid for by ratepayers.

In the state’s Energy Master Plan, New Jersey set a goal of developing 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020. Because of delays in adopting the regulations, it is very unlikely to meet that target.

The setbacks have become an increasing source of frustration for clean-energy advocates and some lawmakers, who at one time believed New Jersey could be the center of an offshore wind industry.

Mroz said the agency needs additional resources to draw up the regulations. “We want to make sure we get that right,’’ said Mroz, being both responsible to ratepayers and responsive to the developers.

[update]Just how much hiring a consultant will push the process forward is uncertain. “They could have hired a consultant for the past five years,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It just becomes the latest excuse not to do anything on offshore wind.’’

Not every senator was unhappy with the delays in approving offshore wind projects. Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Washington) called it most expensive backup system there is. “We have to have cheap energy,’’ he said.

On other issues, Mroz said his staff and the Department of Environmental Protection are analyzing a plan put forward by the Obama administration earlier this month to force states to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.

The analysis is ongoing, but Mroz said complying with the targets set by the plan could be difficult. “It’s fair to say that DEP, in its original analysis, found there are grave concerns how New Jersey would comply,’’ he said.

In a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year, the DEP described the plan as fundamentally flawed and would punish states that already have been aggressive in reducing such emissions.