Photo: Bjoern Schwarz/Flickr

Move over, California, there’s a new climate heartthrob state in town. After years of backward climate policies under Chris Christie’s leadership, the Garden State’s new governor Phil Murphy is overseeing a rapid transformation.

The latest example of this? Two bills passed by wide margins on Thursday that include sweeping renewable energy goals, enhanced energy efficiency, and subsidies for nuclear power. The former two were roundly cheered on by environmental groups, especially the part about getting 50 percent of the state’s power from renewable sources by 2030.

The nuclear power thing is a bit more complicated. Three nuclear power plants currently generate nearly 40 percent of the electricity in the state without a single puff of carbon dioxide. They also provide energy to surrounding states in the Mid-Atlantic. If they shut down, that would leave a big power gap to fill.

And while New Jersey has big renewable ambitions, renewables are currently a tiny percentage of all electricity generated. There’s a lot of natural gas online, though. It’s conceivable that if the nukes were shuttered, natural gas would replace them, causing carbon emissions to rise. Not good!

“I believe the biggest bridge we have to our clean energy future are the nukes and, not to mention, the thousands of jobs they support,” Governor Murphy said, according to the New York Times.

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Adding another layer is the fact that utilities said in a March Securities and Exchange Commission filing that they would stop putting money into plant improvements if the subsidies didn’t happen.

It’s against this backdrop that the state agreed to fork over $300 million in subsidies annually to the utilities to keep the plants in action. There’s no end date for the subsidies, though the bill does mandate that the utilities have to create transition plans in the next two years for what happens when the plants retire, including how they’ll deal with workers who will lose their jobs. The oldest of the three plants, Oyster Creek is scheduled to retire later this year.

Overall, the situation illustrates the hard choices every state faces when it comes to getting emissions down to zero. New Jersey is one of the 14 states that have announced it’ll honor the U.S. Paris Agreement commitments after Trump said he’d pull the country out. It’s joined the regional carbon market. It’s against expanding offshore drilling. It has a renewables vision.

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But it also has a major energy source already on the books that’s expensive but carbon-free, and it’s decided that $300 million annually (technically, ratepayers’ money in the form of a $41 per year fee) is better spent stopping emissions today rather than heavily subsidizing new renewables. Other states and countries have decided otherwise.

“All available renewable energy growth needs to be used to replace fossil fuels, and that any megawatt hour of renewable energy that instead replaces nuclear is like running to stay in place. It’s an opportunity cost,” Jesse Jenkins, a PhD candidate at MIT studying energy issues, told Earther. “And we’re talking about an awful lot of carbon-free megawatt hours from the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear plants.”

The National Resources Defense Council has criticized the nuclear bill for the lack of a sunset clause, but Dale Bryk, the group’s chief planning and integration officer argued it’s important to step back and see the bigger picture. Writing on their site, she said, “the controversy over the nuclear measure shouldn’t distract lawmakers and citizens from the important strides state leaders are making by charting this new course for clean energy.”

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This post has been updated with Jesse Jenkins’ comments.