Rick Thigpen has been with PSEG since 2007, rising through the ranks to his present position of senior vice president and head of Corporate Citizenship in 2018. In a conversation with TAPinto, Thigpen notes how his professional and personal background in politics as district director for the late U.S. Rep. Don Payne, former executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, and son of the late former Essex County Democratic Chairman Phil Thigpen prepared him to help make policy decisions at PSEG. The policy challenges that lie ahead toward achieving New Jersey’s goal of 100 percent clean energy gives Thigpen’s life lessons a new meaning and an important purpose.
Q: What does PSEG do?
A: PSEG is a regulated public utility that has a service area covering over 3 million people in New Jersey. We deliver natural gas to heat homes and businesses – for the sake of argument about two out of three of homes and businesses have an PSEG meter attached. We’re about to sell all of our fossil-fuel fire-powered generating stations. We already have solar generation, and we just announced our investment in offshore wind generation. The remaining power generation we have is nuclear generation, and keeping nuclear is part of our plan to become more and more a clean energy company. Our two nuclear plants in Salem County down in South Jersey generates nearly 40 percent of the electricity used in the state of New Jersey. One hundred percent of the nuclear energy generated in New Jersey comes from these plants, and about 90 percent of the carbon-free electricity generated in the state.
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Q: There have been several serious accidents at nuclear plants since the commercialization of nuclear power in the 1970s – Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. How do you address concerns voiced by the public that nuclear power generation is unsafe?
A: People can be made to be afraid of nuclear power because they don’t have a lot of understanding of it, and they’re aware of [the nuclear accidents]. But we understand a couple of things. First of all, our plants have been open since the late 1970s and 1980’s, and we are proud of our safety track record. We’ve never imperiled the health and safety of the residents of New Jersey for that entire period. We’ve also learned that the more we can educate you about nuclear power and all the safety that goes with it, the more likely you are to have positive feelings about it,
Q: PSEG has recently applied with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to retain $300 million in public ratepayer subsidies for its nuclear plants. PSEG has stated that without the subsidies it could not afford to keep the plants open. However, critics have claimed that the plants are financially viable without the subsidies. Are these subsidies truly necessary?
A: We believe that one of our main interests is doing what’s right for New Jersey for a business to be successful. We would never be involved in deceiving people of the state about something of this magnitude in order to make money. In Washington, there’s been a lot of policy makers that favor fossil fuels who make them appear to be cheaper than nuclear power, and that’s causing problems all across the country for nuclear power. New Jersey is caught up in that dynamic. When people say, ‘Well, Public Service is a profitable corporation, and if that’s true then they should keep running these plants [without subsidies]’, it’s not nearly that simple. We do have an obligation as a business not to lose money. But from all of our research, we believe it is less expensive for New Jersey to support nuclear than the cost to the state to allow those plants to close. That is not instinctive or intuitive to most people, but that’s the dilemma we face. It actually costs New Jersey more money if we close the plants than if we do what we’re doing and ask for the zero emission credits to keep the plants open.
If you take away 40 percent of your electricity supply coming from nuclear power, but demand stays the same, prices rise. Nuclear is a huge employer in South Jersey down in Salem County. Over 1,600 jobs directly and about another 3,000 in indirect jobs are generated by the plants. If all of that goes away, it’s an enormous economic hit for the state and loss of revenue from the economic activity from running the plants, including from income and property taxes that no longer goes into the state treasury.
Perhaps most importantly, there is clean air and climate change to consider. It’s hard to put a precise price tag on clean air, but if you close those plants, you will burn more fossil fuel to provide the electricity we need and have more problems with air quality. And it is much more expensive to deal with the impacts of climate change than it is to spend money to mitigate those changes. It’s almost like repairing your car – you save money by spending money on an oil change, because now you don’t have to spend money on fixing your engine. Spending this money actually saves people money. And PSEG knows that, otherwise we would not be asking the state to support nuclear.
Q: The goal of Gov. Phil Murphy’s energy master plan is to achieve 100 percent clean energy for the state by reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2050. How does the continuation of PSEG’s nuclear portfolio fit in to this plan?
A: Gov. Murphy has articulated a very positive, very ambitious clean energy agenda that we believe is in the best interests of the people in our state. One of the key elements of that is to generate all of our electricity by 2050 without air pollution or emissions. In order to meet that goal, if you take away nuclear, it will add millions of dollars in cost to New Jersey to achieve that goal.
Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the economy and has caused people, governments and businesses to take a hard look at costs. In that context, if producing power using natural gas is cheaper, why not focus on natural gas rather than nuclear or other potential power sources?
A: There’s several good reasons for it. Number one is if 90 percent of your electricity is generated by one source, you are vulnerable to trouble. Having fuel diversity makes sense. Number two is that while natural gas is a very important fuel, it’s only cheaper today because the price of the air pollution that comes from burning the fossil fuels is not included in the price. So it’s cheaper, but it’s not really cheaper. You’re going to have to deal with the costs of air pollution as well as the impacts of climate change. Doing what’s cheaper makes sense, and we do have an obligation to respect the pocketbooks of our customers. But relying on natural gas is not cheaper. What’s the cheapest way today will be much more expensive over time.
Q: Earlier this month, PSEG announced that it will have a 25 percent ownership interest in the $1.6 billion Ocean Wind project to be built 15 miles off the coast of Atlantic City. Upon completion, the project will be the largest producer of wind power in New Jersey and the largest offshore wind farm in the United States. How does this initiative support PSEG’s nuclear efforts?
A: Ocean Wind will be a new power generating source that’s never been done on this scale in New Jersey and will be a major contribution to the goal of having zero emissions generation. The nuclear plants generate 3500 plus megawatts, and the new wind project will generate 1100 megawatts. You put it on top of nuclear, you add in solar, you add in energy efficiency, you’re beginning to get a lot closer to that goal of zero emissions. There’s still a long journey there, but it’s still an important part of the governor’s vision of achieving the zero emission goal.
Q: Do you think that it’s realistic for New Jersey to be reach a 100 percent carbon-free energy goal by 2050?
A: I think it’s realistic, and I think affordability is a goal. That’s one of the reasons not closing the nuclear plants is important, because the price tag to reach that goal increases exponentially. The offshore wind generation initiative is just the beginning. I think the governor’s energy plan figures up to 3500 megawatts of offshore wind, so getting the first tranche done [through the Ocean Wind project] is the first step in generating more electricity by offshore wind. It’s very challenging to get all of the elements in place to make sure carbon-free energy is affordable to the customers. That’s again one of the ways nuclear is important because if it closes, power won’t be as affordable to the customers.
Q: Your title is the head of Corporate Citizenship for PSEG. Many people challenge the concept that corporations have a beneficial public role at all. How are you serving the public in the role you have now?
A: I’m very proud that I’m head of Corporate Citizenship at a company called Public Service. It’s a little bit of a cliché, but I mean it. PSEG is in the energy business, which fundamentally is a public-private partnership. All of the rates that are charged by PSEG are approved by the public sector before we can charge you for your electricity. In order for energy to be generated, distributed, and then delivered to your home, it requires all kinds of government approvals, and so an essential part of our business success is people believing in public service. If people in New Jersey believe that we only focus on what’s good for ourselves, our business will be much less successful. We succeed by aligning ourselves with public policy.
I should add that we engage in charitable activity in New Jersey – we have a foundation that supports a variety of activities to make our state is a better place. Our company is a big corporate buyer because spending our money on New Jersey businesses will help our state. The vast majority of our employees are from New Jersey, and lots of them are volunteers in their communities. I have employees that serve on Rotary boards, are coaches, PTA members, who do other types of community service. And then, like other corporations, we are not unmindful in any way of the calls for social justice and equity. That’s what corporate citizenship is about. It’s the hardest challenge as we’re in so many communities with so many impacts. If I do my job well, PSEG is a much more successful corporation.
Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the socioeconomic divisions in our country, which in New Jersey is often underscored by the differences between the cities and the suburbs. PSEG interacts with over 300 municipalities all over New Jersey. How can your work mitigate this divide?
A: It has not escaped my attention in any way that people of color in some communities are suspicious that the big corporations will not treat them as well as we would our suburban customers. We are not allowed to treat people differently by the rates we charge, and it is our obligation to provide the same level of service to you whether you live on Bergen Street in Newark or you live on one of the fancier streets in Short Hills or in Princeton. It is our obligation not to allow that to happen. It’s something I do take very seriously. Certain people in different cities in New Jersey have dealt with the disparities in their lives across the board and don’t think that we’re going to be any different. So our success is about having all New Jerseyans feel that PSEG is a company that all New Jerseyans can count on.
My grandmother was born in North Carolina, and she moved to New Jersey to escape oppression. PSEG didn’t have people that looked like her in the 1930’s and 40’s and 50’s. PSEG didn’t invest in people like her and the community she lived in. Now, this is a new PSEG. We recognize that we have an obligation to invest in these communities, and I would be damned if the mayors of Newark, Plainfield, Trenton or Camden thought that PSEG did not pay attention to their needs. And I say that with a lot of emotion, because I know how important it is.
Q: Your father, the late Phil Thigpen, was the Essex County Democratic chairman for many years. What did you lean from him that prepared you for your current job?
A: My father taught me to be a man of character. My father also taught me to be a student of politics – you don’t just do this to participate. You need to learn this game, learn the process and learn the people. You need to understand what you’re doing.
I was also lucky enough to work for the late Congressman Donald M. Payne (D-Newark). I learned from him that I have an obligation to be a humble man, and to listen to people and to never think that I am better than any of the people I’m dealing with. Both my father and Congressman Payne made me love politics and how government works, sometimes in excruciating detail. They taught me that public service is an obligation you should take seriously in order to protect the interest of the public as America continues on the journey towards greater equality.
Q: Is your present job similar to the purely political work of your personal mentors?
My father taught me patience, not to overreact to situations, and to give people room to come along with you, to build bridges with people. You don’t burn them because I think I’m right and you’re wrong. I am very familiar with factions and fluidity, people pursuing their own agendas, herding cats and watching their backs. Just like politics, this job is about having an understanding of what it is you’re dealing with and what you’re trying to accomplish. My job is to build coalitions, to get people who never trusted PSEG to trust in us. If I hadn’t learned this from my father, I might be mad for something you said to me a month ago, and then try to get you back. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is how you bring people together and accomplish things for the greater good.