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Power Points

Behind New Jersey's ambitions for clean energy equity and offshore wind

The state's public utilities chief, Joseph Fiordaliso, chats about the potential of clean energy, the importance of equity within all initiatives, and how states can lead the way forward.

New Jersey flag with solar panel

If you want to know what state-level clean energy leadership looks like, look no further than New Jersey. 

Since the beginning of the year, the Garden State has made headlines for three initiatives: its plans to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050; its investment in offshore wind; and its proposal to create an Office of Clean Energy and Equity.  

All three are commendable in their own right. They show how a state can signal the opportunities inherent in the clean energy economy, and the importance that it works for everyone. 

One person at the center of these initiatives is Joseph Fiordaliso, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. At the end of June, I talked to Fiordaliso to better understand his perspective on the potential of clean energy, the importance of equity within all initiatives and how states can lead the way forward. The interview is edited for length and clarity. 

Sarah Golden: I wanted to talk to you about the Office of Clean Energy and Equity. Am I right in thinking this is the first office of this type in the United States? 

Joe Fiordaliso: I don’t want to say "yes" to that because I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it's the first office for the Board of Public Utilities (BPU).

The purpose is to ensure the fact that every community, regardless of income, regardless of where they live, is afforded the opportunity to participate in the green revolution that is occurring in the state of New Jersey. And we cannot be successful, looking at a very selfish perspective, if everyone is not involved. And everyone should be involved because everyone pays into it. And to say it's only for the super-rich doesn't sit well with me or Gov. [Phil] Murphy. 

Joseph Fiordaliso, New Jersey

Golden: I was taking a look at the timeline. I know [State Sen. Troy] Singleton introduced the bill in mid-May; you vowed to create this office in June. Is this in any way inspired, or is it rising in prominence, because of the Black Lives Matters movement? 

Fiordaliso: No. This has always been our goal. And Black lives do matter, by the way. And this has always been our goal. It's always been on the governor's agenda. Environmental justice and, what I get out of the environmental justice theme of the governor, is what I said before — that everyone has the opportunity to participate regardless of their economic standing. 

We just passed a very, I think, most impressive energy efficiency ruling here in the state of New Jersey. The BPU did that just a couple of weeks ago now, and I believe it's the most progressive. This is the one thing that is going to help low and moderate-income folks to participate in the green revolution. So I'm very excited about that.

It is really an agenda that is all-inclusive. And I'm so proud of what we're doing here. So many programs are geared towards those folks that can afford to participate. This is not. This is to afford the opportunity to everybody. And I'm thrilled that we're taking this approach. I'm thrilled that the governor is one of the most progressive in the country, and we're following his lead and the lead of many of our legislators. And it really is gratifying. 

Golden: Why is it important to establish an Office of Clean Energy Equity in addition to having such a progressive energy efficiency initiative?

Fiordaliso: To monitor and ensure that everyone has the opportunity. Many clean energy programs throughout the United States, including originally here in New Jersey, we're so excited about initiating programs but less excited about tracking those programs. Less excited about ensuring that everyone has the ability to participate. That is extremely important. This office will, I hope, ensure the fact that we are monitoring this closely, and if certain programs are not reaching the general population, then we have to tweak them. Then we have to revise them. Then we have to alter them. But I think this is extremely important to point out, not only our successes but our failures. If we don't know what our failures are, we can't fix it. 

It's important for us to seize the moment; carpe diem. Seize the day. That's our obligation in government right now, seize that day.

One of the core missions of this office is going to be to point out the deficiencies and say, "Hey, we're falling short here. Let's find out why we're falling short. Let's find out why more people aren't participating. Are there barriers there that we didn't realize are there?" And fix it. Remove those barriers and continue to move forward. And I think that's our obligation. We're not only seeing certain people, we're serving everybody. 

Golden: I'm struck by the opportunities that COVID represents to rebuild the economy. I was looking at an op-ed Singleton wrote; one line that stuck out to me is, "As New Jersey works to establish a path to economic recovery, as elected public servants, we must seize the moment to work toward a future that is affordable, equitable, accessible and sustainable."

There are so many different realms right now where we get to reimagine because everything is starting from ground zero. I'm curious about the moment we're in to be able to rethink and rebuild things, but also need to justify investments when state budgets are so strained. 

Fiordaliso: Very good question. We are in the process of establishing a massive evaluation program to ensure the fact that we're getting the best bang for the buck, so to speak, out of all of the programs we have in the state of New Jersey because the taxpayers, one way or another, are paying for this. And they have the right to know whether or not we're spending their money in a good fashion and if we're not, we'd better adjust the programs and eliminate those that are not giving us the best bang for the bucks.

So we're in this massive program to evaluate every single program. This has given us an opportunity, this crisis that we're in, because out of crisis, many times, comes good things. We don't see them initially, but it makes us rethink certain things, and makes us see what we're doing.

These are all things that we evaluate and continue to evaluate more and more as we go down this road to a clean energy economy. We failed to mention, many, many times, that there is economic opportunity in the clean energy revolution. And the clean energy revolution can ignite a massive economic renewal. And every state, I would assume, is looking at an economic renewal after, or during, this pandemic. The programs we're initiating, they will create jobs. 

Let's take offshore wind as an example. We've positioned ourselves with the wind port that was approved [in June] to be the focal point for the supply chain for the entire Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. New Jersey is well-positioned to do that. That brings along 1,500 jobs, that alone, not including the jobs of the wind industry that are in the thousands. 

So economic opportunity exists. And it's important for us to seize the moment; carpe diem. Seize the day. That's our obligation in government right now, seize that day. Because that opportunity may evade us tomorrow. 

Golden: While we're on the subject of offshore wind, can you talk about the potential for clean energy to jumpstart the economy? 

Fiordaliso: I'm going to go back just a little bit, if I may, to solar energy. 

In the early 2000s, we started the solar energy initiative here in the state of New Jersey. It has been a very successful program. Like every program, it needed a little boost to get started, and we provided that boost here in New Jersey with grants and incentives and so on. Today, we have over 140,000 solar installations. It has created over 7,000 jobs here in New Jersey, has contributed to the economic diversity here in New Jersey, and we expect the same to occur in the wind industry — but even on a bigger scale. 

When we're finished with our offshore wind, millions of New Jersey residents will get energy that's generated by windmills.

Keep in mind, and California knows this better than anybody, most of the clean energy initiatives have emanated from the states on up. We have gotten very little encouragement from the federal government, and over the past 3.5 years we've gotten even less encouragement from the federal government. 

Golden: One of the things that I found amazing about the investment in offshore wind and the ambitious targets of 7.5 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035 is you're talking about investing in a whole new industry, a new technology and bringing it to the United States. Why is it significant to be embracing a new technology at this moment? 

Fiordaliso: It's significant because it's going to help us get to our goal. It's significant because of the economic advancements it's going to bring to our state. It's significant because of the jobs that it will bring to our state. And, when we're finished with our offshore wind, millions of New Jersey residents will get energy that's generated by windmills. 

The jobs that that brings, the investments that that brings, are probably much more than we're anticipating today. So it is exciting, but it is also something that's going to transition our economy to a large extent to a whole new, different industry. 

So these are the things we're looking at. It's the idea that we have to bring our fellow citizens along and help to educate them and the benefits of renewable energy. Not only is it the fact that it might save our planet, not only the fact that we have a moral obligation, I believe, for our children, grandchildren and subsequent generation to improve this earth and try and mitigate the traumatic effects of climate change. Because whether we want to admit it or note, whether the federal government wants to admit there's climate change or not, it's here. 

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