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Former Backers Flip-Flop On Solar Bill

Legislation to promote community-wide solar projects passes senate, original advocates now say scaled-down bill will promote few, if any, installations.

A scaled-down version of legislation designed to promote community-wide solar projects won approval from the Senate yesterday, but its fate is uncertain because many of the people who originally pushed for it were lobbying against the current version of the bill.

The original bill was touted by environmentalists and clean energy advocates as helping New Jersey meet very aggressive targets for increasing the number of homes powered by solar panels. That includes homeowners whose houses are unsuitable for solar projects because of location or other factors.

The bill's backers now oppose the measure, saying the legislation imposes so many hurdles on communities that wish to build a shared solar project, it is likely very few, if any, will be built. The main objection rests with a provision requiring PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid, to approve any community-wide project. Sen. Robert Smith (D- Middlesex), the sponsor of the bill (S-463), and utility industry executives argued PJM needs to be involved to ensure the reliability of the grid is not compromised by installation of solar projects the grid operator did not know about.

The bill once allowed both commercial and industrial customers, who account for two-thirds of electricity used in New Jersey, to tap into community solar systems, but that provision was taken out at the request of utilities. The bill also no longer has a provision affording a 10 percent discount on their utility rates to homeowners participating in the community-wide solar projects, but retained a 20 percent discount for certain homeowners with all-electric homes.

Dave Pringle, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, argued the original intent of the bill was to afford to people who could not do solar on their homes because of shade or other building constraints the opportunity to obtain the same solar energy renewable certificates individuals receive for electricity generated from their own systems. The certificates, which sell for more than $670 in the spot market, are given to owners of solar systems for each megawatt of power they generate.

The federation, Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey spent most of the day lobbying Smith and other lawmakers to hold off a vote on the bill, saying they hoped to work with the senator and Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Middlesex) to amend the bill to remove unnecessary barriers to neighbors who want to form a local energy collaborative. Smith conceded the bill was not perfect. “No matter what you do nobody is happy, which probably means it is a pretty good bill,’’ he said in remarks on the floor of the Senate. The bill passed, largely along party lines, in a 26-10 vote.

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