ATLANTIC CITY — Just off this city’s famous coastline is one of the windiest stretches of the Mid-Atlantic, where constant breezes can fill a sail or — in theory — turn the blades of a wind turbine. It’s a place the state’s Republican governor invoked in 2010 in pledging to make New Jersey a wind superpower.
“It makes sense for us to go in this direction,” said Gov. Chris Christie after signing a bill aimed at bringing thickets of wind towers to coastal waters and making the state, in his words, “a national leader in the wind-power movement.”
Five years later, there are no ocean turbines in sight here and no firm plans for starting construction. The company created to install the first wind farm off Atlantic City has been repeatedly blocked by a Christie-appointed regulatory panel, and the governor has all but ceased talking about the subject.
Why the project stalled — and why New Jersey will almost certainly miss its goal of 1,100 megawatts of wind-generated electricity before 2021 — is the subject of intense debate here. Some blame the governor, whose enthusiasm for wind energy appeared to flag around the time he began exploring a run for the Republican presidential nomination. Political opponents say the turning point was a series of meetings in 2011 and 2012 with key Republican donors, including billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, oil-industry magnates who have bankrolled campaigns against renewable energy.
Since then, the governor who once promised to be “New Jersey’s No. 1 clean-energy advocate” has spent more time stumping on behalf of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — an oil conveyance 1,200 miles from New Jersey at its closest point — than in lobbying for wind turbines, critics say.
“The Kochs don’t like clean energy,” said Stephen Sweeney, president of the Democratic-
controlled state Senate and a supporter of wind farms. “The governor wants to be a Republican presidential candidate, and this kind of energy doesn’t get you any stars.”
But the difficulties for wind power in New Jersey also reflect broader struggles for a U.S. offshore wind industry that is many years behind counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer for a small wind farm off Rhode Island, but other proposed projects in coastal Massachusetts and Delaware have stumbled because of financing problems and local opposition — including, in one case, an anti-wind-power group backed by another member of the Koch family.
Fishermen’s Energy, the company that wants to install turbines off Atlantic City, has been twice derailed by a skeptical state utilities board, which has questioned the company’s finances while arguing that the project would be costly to New Jersey rate payers.
Christie administration officials, while declining to comment on the Fishermen’s project, noted that it was the regulator, not the governor, that stopped the project from moving forward. A spokesman pointed to other environmental accomplishments such as promoting solar energy.
“The governor has pursued exactly the type of policy he said he would when running for governor: balancing the needs of giving businesses relief from onerous regulations with a commitment to protect the environment,” spokesman Kevin Roberts said.
Fishermen’s chief executive, Paul J. Gallagher Sr., says the company isn’t giving up. The firm recently won a $47 million federal grant to pursue plans to build the wind farm off Atlantic City, and state lawmakers are debating legislation to force the state’s Board of Public Utilities to allow the project to move forward.
Supporting the company’s efforts is the Obama administration, which has aggressively promoted wind and solar energy as part of its larger effort to reduce carbon emissions. Interior Department officials believe the prevailing currents are finally shifting, as recent lease sales for future wind farms along the Atlantic seaboard have attracted multiple competing bidders. A 2010 Energy Department study estimated that about 4,100 gigawatts of wind energy could be potentially harnessed along the U.S. coastline, a staggering amount of power that is more than four times the current generating capacity of the entire U.S. electric grid.
“The technology is proven, and the economics will prove themselves over time,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in an interview.
But perhaps not quite yet, for New Jersey. Gallagher, the Fishermen’s Energy chief, acknowledged that the delays have taken a toll on his company.
“Our plan was to be out there first,” Gallagher said. “While we’ve been delayed, other companies in other states are moving forward. Meanwhile, we’ve invested a lot of money and we’re not making any.”
Gallagher, a former city solicitor in Atlantic City, understands both the promises and pitfalls of wind energy perhaps better than anyone in the state. The 64-year-old Republican and onetime prosecutor was a driving force behind the state’s first land-based wind farm: a cluster of five 32-story wind towers on the outskirts of Atlantic City.
The state’s central beaches are famously windy, and Gallagher became fascinated by the idea of harnessing the steady shore breeze to generate power and save taxpayers money. Built by a private developer for $12.5 million, the towers became an iconic presence on the city’s skyline while generating 60 percent of the operating power for the town’s waste-treatment plant.
After that, the move from land- to sea-based turbines seemed like an easy leap. Gallagher found partners in 2011 for an offshore project in a group of New Jersey fishermen who were intrigued by wind power, both as an investment and as tangible way to fight climate change, he said.
“These guys are not climate deniers,” Gallagher said of his business partners. “Most of them have been fishing their whole lives, and they’ve seen the ocean rise. When I was a kid, the clammers used to always turn right when they left the basin. Now they go left because the clams are moving north as the ocean warms.”
The group’s timing seemed close to perfect. European countries were plunging headlong into offshore wind power, spurring the development of improved turbine designs that cost less money to make and install. Successive New Jersey governments had laid the groundwork by approving tax incentives and surveying the coast for favorable locations.
Then, in 2010, a new Republican governor came to power in Trenton promising to make New Jersey a leader in renewable energy. Though he never specifically endorsed the Fishermen’s wind proposal, Christie quickly signed into law the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act. The law created incentives for wind-energy projects, from turbine manufacturing to the construction of actual wind farms. It also ordered the state’s Board of Public Utilities to develop standards for certifying new wind-energy projects, which would include a requirement to show “positive economic and environmental net benefits” to the state.
“We would rather have wind turbines, and the environmental and economic benefits they offer, than oil rigs off the coast of New Jersey,” Bob Martin, Christie’s point man at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, said at the time.
With all the lights seemingly set to green, the Fishermen’s investors raced through the bureaucratic steps to begin work on a small, 25-megawatt wind farm to be built in state waters just three miles from the city’s oceanfront casinos. One of the final steps was a hearing before the utilities board, which was to conduct the legally mandated review into whether the wind farm would produce a net benefit for New Jersey. The state’s official watchdog, the Division of the Rate Counsel, had already concluded that it did.
The result — a unanimous verdict, from three Republicans and two Democrats appointed by Christie — was a resounding no. Documents from the proceedings showed that the board’s commissioners declined to consider environmental benefits from reduced air pollution and lower carbon emissions. Although New Jersey formerly belonged to a 10-state cap-and-trade program that paid cash incentives for reducing carbon pollution, Christie ended the state’s participation in the program a year after taking office.
The board also declined to factor in millions of dollars in federal aid guaranteed to the company, ruling that the project “does not provide a net economic and environmental benefit.”
A board spokesman declined to comment on the decision, but Fishermen’s officials and allies were incensed.
“They zeroed us out on environmental benefits,” complained Gallagher, who appealed the decision last year only to be rejected a second time. Even using the board’s unfavorable assumptions, the possible cost to ratepayers would have amounted to “pennies on the electric bill. A dollar per ratepayer per year,” he said.
“And even at that,” he said, “the board said it was still too expensive.”
While Christie has made no public comment about the decision, the board’s conclusions have been applauded by a number of New Jersey companies and analysts who contend that wind power and other forms of renewable energy are still too costly. Land-based wind farms now routinely produce electricity at rates competitive with coal and natural gas, but offshore wind farms are more expensive to install and would likely require many years of operation to recoup the initial investments, opponents say.
A report by the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative-leaning think tank funded in part by oil interests, said projects such as the Atlantic City wind farm are a “terrible investment, economically.”
But others say New Jersey has lost ground by falling behind in a race to develop new energy sources that are being embraced by other states as well as a wide array of trading partners abroad, from the European Union to China.
The criticism of Christie’s performance has intensified in the wake of recent revelations that his administration accepted a $225 million settlement from Exxon Mobil to clean up polluted refinery sites in New Jersey, a sum that fell far short of the $8.9 billion the state had originally sought.
“Christie was an early advocate for offshore wind, but the people who work for him have still not promulgated the rules that the law says are needed to provide the financial mechanisms,” said Nancy Sopko, a wind-power expert with Oceana, an environmental group that promotes clean energy. “With all these delays and roadblocks, it is hard to get companies interested in developing projects off New Jersey’s coast.”
Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the state Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee and an early supporter of the Atlantic City project, said the debate was never supposed to be about incremental fluctuations in utility prices, but rather about staking an early claim to new technology that could bring both new jobs and cleaner air to the state. Whether the reasons for rejecting the project were political or bureaucratic, blocking the turbines was near-sighted, at best, he said.
“Our Senate president was 100 percent for it, and early on Christie was for it,” Smith said. “Now I think he’s afraid of having any portion of his body appear green.”