New Jersey regulators voted Thursday to approve $300 million in customer-funded subsidies for the state's nuclear industry despite finding the plants are financially viable, report agencies.
The decision means that all residential utility customers in the state will see their bills go up by about $40 a year under some estimates. Large businesses have said their bills could go up by about 50%.
In return for the bailout, the state's biggest utility, Public Service Enterprise Group, is expected to keep the three southern New Jersey nuclear plants that supply an estimated two-fifths of the state's electricity supply in operation. The plants provide carbon-free energy and employ up to 2,000 people, the company says.
The Board of Public Utilities voted 4-1 to approve the bailout during a meeting packed with supporters and opponents at the statehouse annex. For the first time on Thursday the public learned that the board's staff, which delivered a presentation before the vote, determined that the plants were "viable as they stand now," and "not in need of a subsidy."
Public Service Enterprise Group provided the board with the financial documents used to reach those conclusions, but they were kept confidential, as required by law.
The findings put board members in the position of supporting a customer-financed electricity tariff that has been vocally opposed by a number of groups, including the AARP - whose members wore red T-shirts to protest the subsidies - some environmental organizations and large businesses in the state.
"I would characterize the choices we face as genuinely awful," Board Commissioner Bob Gordon said. "In my view the board is being directed to pay ransom and the hostages are the citizens of New Jersey."
Gordon also lamented the fact that the law, which was passed by the Democrat-led Legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy a year ago, fixes the subsidy at $300 million and does not provide for varying the amount.
Gordon called on lawmakers and the governor to consider finding a way to "mitigate" costs for businesses and residents. Commissioner Upendra Chivukula was the only no vote. He recounted a tale of growing up poor in India and called the bailout a "disgrace" while voting.
"I will not let down the poor people of the state of New Jersey," he said. "Today when I look at this thing I think this is highway robbery." Board President Joseph Fiordaliso said despite the financial finding, he thought the panel had a responsibility to consider other factors as well, including the diversity of fuel sources in the state, and the impact on the environment of shuttering plants that emit no carbon.
Public Service Enterprise Group plant workers wearing orange T-shirts watched the proceedings in the crowded hearing room. In a statement, the company said that it was "pleased" with the board's decision.
"The BPU just saved the people of the State hundreds of millions of dollars in what would have been higher energy costs, thousands of jobs lost and tons of environmentally damaging air emissions," the company said.
Opponents of the subsidy decried the board's decision and said bailing out nuclear would mean fewer resources for wind and solar power in the future.
"The BPU sold out the ratepayers and renewable energy today by going along with this unnecessary nuclear subsidy. This giveaway is about greed and not need," said New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel.
Public Service Enterprise Group lobbied heavily on the subsidies and went to lawmakers about two years ago saying that a glut of cheaper natural gas made the nuclear plants less viable and that they'd shutter them without financial help.
New Jersey joins New York and Illinois, which enacted similar subsidy programs in 2016.