A hot topic, especially in the summer

By: Michele Byers
If New Jersey’s record-setting heat waves this summer had a soundtrack, it would be the sound of millions of humming air conditioners.
If you’re like most people, your air conditioner is powered by electricity from a grid of hundreds of power plants spread over many states. Since electricity can’t be stored on a large scale, engineers in control rooms across the grid maintain a steady flow.
But high-profile blackouts and brownouts in recent years have sparked worries about overloading the grid. This, combined with the high cost of most energy production to the environment and to our wallets, reminds us there’s no substitute for conserving energy.
Most of the electricity in the United States comes from coal, nuclear and natural gas. New Jersey is second in the nation in the total number of solar panel-equipped homes and businesses. But 20 percent of our electricity still comes from coal.
The process of extracting coal from the ground causes severe damage to ecosystems and water quality. Coal plants also are inefficient as only about a third of the energy generated by a steam coal power plant makes it to consumers as electricity.
As the long, hot summer fades to cool fall, it’s time to consider two things: consuming less energy through conservation and creating more clean energy through renewable resources.
Unfortunately, New Jersey is making these challenges more difficult by diverting funds earmarked for clean energy and efficiency programs.
According to Matt Elliott of Environment New Jersey, this was a largely untold story in the recent budget season.
"Gov. Christie raided over $400 million from various clean energy programs that helped people and businesses save money and save energy with efficiency products and that supported wind, solar and other renewable technologies," Mr. Elliott said. "Unfortunately, the Legislature let him get away with it and voted to give him the authority to raid these funds."
For example, for the fiscal year 2010, $46.6 million fewer dollars are available for renewable-energy projects – solar, wind and bio power – representing a 27 percent decrease in funding. There also are $60.8 million fewer dollars for energy efficiency programs, including rebates for efficient products and upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, new residential construction, commercial and industrial efficiency projects and local government energy audits.
Fiscal year 2011 saw another $52 million in cuts to the Clean Energy Program. Of these ratepayer dollars, $42 million went to pay the state’s electric bills while another $10 million were diverted to the general fund.
The Clean Energy Program was established a decade ago. A small fee known as the Societal Benefits Charge was added to all of our utility bills. A significant portion of that money was dedicated to the Clean Energy Program to fund solar and wind projects as well as efficient appliances and home and business energy efficiency retrofits.
So, from the start, the Clean Energy Program was funded by our utility dollars – not state money or tax revenue – with the intent the funds be used for energy efficiency and clean-energy programs.
The diversion of these funds hurts small business, the environment and every ratepayer in the state. Although it is too late for 2010 and 2011, let’s work to ensure these funds are protected and used on the clean-energy projects for which they were intended.
Meanwhile, we citizens need to do our best to conserve energy. A great way to learn about energy use, conservation and impacts is to visit the National Geographic website (www.nationalgeographic.com, roll over the "Environment" link near the top of the page and click on "energy"). Its "Great Energy Challenge" is a three-year initiative to deepen public awareness of energy issues. It includes reporting, interesting quizzes, tips on saving energy and much more.
Michele Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. For more information, contact her at [email protected] or visit NJCF’s website at www.njconservation.org.