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With the state looking to offshore windmills to help reduce carbon emissions, environmental and consumer groups are opposing legislation that would give utility regulators the power of eminent domain to obtain land or easements on behalf of wind energy companies for laying underground transmission lines needed to carry power ashore.
Intended to help wind projects avoid being blocked or delayed by local opposition, the measure authorizes, “certain offshore wind projects to construct power lines and obtain real property interests, (and) grants BPU authority to supersede certain local governmental powers upon petition from offshore wind project.”
The measure has cleared committees in both chambers and is scheduled for a full Senate vote on Thursday.
Gov. Phil Murphy has set a target date of 2035 for generating 7,500 megawatts of electricity from wind turbines, enough to power 3.2 million homes. It’s a component of his goal to reduce New Jersey’s net carbon emissions to zero by the year 2050.
But on Monday, five environmental groups sent a joint letter to Gov. Phil Murphy and key lawmakers opposing the eminent domain measure, which is intended to speed wind energy production.
“We support the responsible development of New Jersey’s offshore wind resources and associated infrastructure with sound siting to protect critical natural resources and preserved lands,” stated the letter, signed by representatives of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the Monmouth Conservation Foundation the Watershed Institute, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, and the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.
But, the letter added, “Granting authority to private developers to site transmission infrastructure on lands preserved for future generations with tax-payer support should be a last resort.”
Likewise, a Monmouth County-based group known as Consumers Helping Affect Regulation of Gas & Electric, or CHARGE, announced its opposition to the eminent domain measure on Tuesday, asserting that Senate and Assembly versions of the bill have been rushed through both chambers.
“These two bills grant power projects eminent domain that may not be in the public interest,” the group’s resident, Kin Gee, said in a statement. “An offshore wind project may have merits and be a qualified project. However, it may not be in the public interest to allow each qualified offshore wind project to have its own transmission line connecting onshore.”
Local officials have also expressed opposition to the measure.
“This bill takes away the ability of Shore communities to protect themselves,” Councilman Tom Rotondi of Ocean City, where an offshore wind project planned by the Danish developer Ørsted, told the Associated Press.
Apart from concerns about transmission lines and eminent domain, others worry that the wind mills themselves, rising hundreds of feet above the waves and visible miles offshore, would hurt tourism. The proposed Ørsted project, known as Ocean Wind, is the farthest along and the main focus of attention.
The Ocean Wind project, being done in conjunction with PSEG, would include nearly 100 offshore turbines, each roughly 900 feet tall, about 15 miles southeast of Atlantic City. Ørsted has said it expects Ocean Wind to be operational in 2024.
A sponsor of the wind power eminent domain bill, Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, said there was no time to waste on NIMBY-type delays in making wind power a reality off the Jersey Shore, where the state Department of Environmental Protection has projected that sea level is on course to rise 2.1 feet above the year 2000 level by 2050, thanks to global warming.
Smith said his bill would require that transmission lines be underground, except for very short distances where they surface to connect to the power grid.
Smith, who chairs the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said he does not ordinarily support expansion of government authority, as his measure would for do for the BPU. But in this case, he said, climate change poses an “existential” threat to New Jerseyans and everyone else.
“We are in the queue to become a fried piece of bacon,” said Smith. “We are in big, big trouble as a species, especially in coastal areas. How many times do you have to have a $60 billion Super Storm Sandy hit us?”
Some environmentalists back the bill, arguing that the state’s move toward wind and other clean energy sources away from coal-burning and other high-emission plants should not be hampered by local opposition to transmission lines.
“It is up to the BPU to sort out which project is the best and most cost effective,” Jeff Tittel, former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said in a statement. “More critically, without this legislation we may not get the wind power on shore.”
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