Legislators delay vote on electric bill after flak from fuel industry

By: - March 10, 2023 6:43 am

The fuel industry has fought a bill that would require the state Board of Public Utilities to set building electrification targets and regulations. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Two months after a federal firestorm erupted over fears the government would ban gas stoves, a New Jersey campaign deploying similar messaging successfully drove state lawmakers Thursday to yank a bill that would have required the state to create a building electrification plan.

Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset), one of the bill’s prime sponsors, pulled it from a scheduled vote by the Senate’s environment and energy committee because he fielded so many calls about it he wanted to hear critics’ concerns before proceeding.

“Let’s make sure we get everything right before we run it through, because too often we run it through and find out there are concerns and then we try to fix it after the fact,” Zwicker told the New Jersey Monitor.

Environmentalists denounced the delay, blaming the fuel industry for spreading “lies” to kill the bill.

“If your business model is selling home heating oil, that is a business model that’s in danger,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Fossil fuels are volatile — we saw prices skyrocket — and electrification is increasingly becoming cost competitive with home heating oil. So it’s very obvious why the fuel merchants are against electrification. They’ve been running a disinformation campaign for close to two years, including direct attacks against this bill.”

SmartHeatNJ — an advocacy group backed by the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey — largely is behind the opposition.

The group mounted a letter-writing campaign and advertising blitz against the bill with the slogan “Don’t Touch My Gas Stove!” — warning that state officials are “trying to force” everyone to convert all their appliances to electric at enormous cost — messaging that echoes some of the alarmism Republicans circulated in January to protest President Biden’s energy policies.

The bill doesn’t require residents to convert to electric.

Instead, it would direct the state Board of Public Utilities to establish regulations on building electrification, set targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction through building electrification, and require public electric utilities to develop plans to meet those targets.

Converting to electric would be voluntary — and its cost could be covered by incentives, said Eric Miller, the New Jersey energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“If you go on the PSE&G website, they’ll help you put solar on your roof, install an electric vehicle charger, and get natural gas to your house, if you want it. But they won’t really help you electrify your home or your business, if you want to. That was really what this bill would have done — create incentives to let people make that choice, if they want it,” Miller said.

But the building electrification bill and related others act as a mandate as legislators embrace Gov. Phil Murphy’s race to a 100% clean energy future in a state where 75% of homes use gas, said Eric DeGesero, who represents the Fuel Merchants Association and the New Jersey Propane Gas Association.

In their hurry to electrify, policymakers have ignored other possible answers, like decarbonizing existing fossil fuels, DeGesero said.

They also too blithely ignore cost, he added. Conversations on electrifying buildings tend to focus on operational costs and minimize the capital costs, which can be crippling, he said.

“We’re rewriting the rules of civilization for all eternity,” DeGesero said. That’s why all sides must pause to make sure policymakers get it right, he added.

Miller worries that delays only decrease New Jersey’s chances of landing federal funds to cover electrification costs.

“New Jersey has the opportunity to get around $4 billion in tax credits and rebates through the Inflation Reduction Act,” Miller said. “But folks are only going to get those if there are programs and contractors that can actually do this work. And that’s why this bill is really, really important.”

Homes and businesses that use fossil fuels like natural gas, propane, and fuel oil for heating, cooking, drying clothes, and other needs are responsible for more than 28% of New Jersey’s climate pollution, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

O’Malley said legislation like the building electrification bill is needed to ensure New Jersey achieves its goal of having 100% of its energy generated by renewable sources by 2035. Murphy last month also set a building electrification target of 400,000 homes and 20,000 commercial spaces by 2030.

“Other states are moving forward with electrification,” O’Malley said. “We need to start putting in place policies through the Legislature to move towards electrification like neighboring states. This will be good for consumers in the long term and a huge win for public health and the environment.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.