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Solar Battle Heats Up

New Jersey has set aggressive goals for its solar industry. The question now is can it afford to meet them.

By most accounts New Jersey’s solar industry has enjoyed a remarkable run in recent years, installing up to 180 megawatts of capacity, enough to vault it at one point to behind only California in the number of solar installations.

Clean energy advocates credit the solar industry with creating more than 2,000 jobs, a number expected to climb to 3,500 by the end of the year. And the more than 200 firms involved in the industry boost their argument that a green economy can only bolster New Jersey’s prospects for growth.

Yet the industry is facing tough questions from the Christie administration. The concern is cost: How expensive will it be to meet aggressive goals to increase New Jersey's reliance on solar energy, a situation some argue is driving up the price of electric power in a state that already has high energy expenditures.

The Solar Balancing Act

The focus on solar occurs as the state Board of Public Utilities is trying to pinpoint ways to reduce utility bills while complying with legislation that increases solar energy goals dramatically.

By 2026, a bill passed this past January directs the state to have solar capacity of 5,000 megawatts, roughly equivalent to the output of five nuclear power plants. At the same time, funding for clean energy programs is being sharply curtailed and the agency is rethinking the state’s energy master plan and its ambitious goals for renewable energy.

What is worrisome to skeptics is the cost of solar energy today is still much higher than conventional energy. They note that solar renewable energy certificates on the spot market sell for around $670, or the equivalent of 60 cents per kilowatt hour. (Solar certificates are the price owners of solar systems earn for electricity they generate.) In comparison, consumers pay about 11 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity generated by conventional power plants.

Supply and Demand

Many solar advocates are frustrated because the debate is losing sight of the benefits the sector has delivered to New Jersey. They concede the price for the solar certificates is too high, but argue it is a function of demand outstripping supply and insist prices will drop when supply and demand are more in balance.

“There’s been not enough credit to the local solar industry that has developed,’’ said Fred Zalcman, director of regulatory affairs in eastern states for SunEdison, a large solar firm. “It’s created a lot of local jobs.’’

Others are blunter. “We believe solar is falling out of favor with this administration,’’ said Dolores Phillips, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, noting only $3.2 million is allocated to the solar residential program in a straw budget proposal for next year. “Too many discussions are taking place behind closed doors.’’

Developing Solar Responsibly

To some, though, the debate is timely. If New Jersey is going to pursue aggressive solar targets, then it must do it responsibly and must do it recognizing what the impact will be on ratepayers, argued Steven Goldenberg, an attorney who represents manufacturers that use tremendous amounts of energy.

Terry Sobolewski, business development manager for SunPower, said the industry needs to make its case how the rapid development of the sector in New Jersey has created thousands of well-paying jobs here, and would continue to do so if the state stays on target to promote solar aggressively.

“Now, we’ve got 180 megawatts of installed solar and it’s created 3,500 jobs,’’ said Sobolewski, who suggested an even bigger bonanza of new jobs could be created if the state sticks with its target of 5,000 megawatts by 2026. “If you project forward, it’s a lot no matter how you slice it.’’

Lower Prices Expected

For those who argue solar is too expensive based on the spot prices being fetched by the solar certificates, Sobolewski said that argument assumes that is the price being paid for all certificates when it reflects about two-thirds of the market. Other solar certificates, which are earned under long-term contracts signed with suppliers, are averaging about $374, he said. “With more long-term contracts, the price will come down.’’

He and others argue the price of solar systems also will drop as technology improves. And as larger solar systems are built, economies of scale will drive the cost down further.

“Yes, solar is expensive right now, but we’re building an industry,’’ said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “It’s nothing new to subsidize a new energy source so long as the costs keep going down and the technology is improving.’’

Beyond the issue of the solar certificates, advocates argue when trying to assess the cost of various programs, the state ought to consider the benefits. For instance, solar power replaces electricity generated by peaking plants, which are the most expensive ways of producing power and increase the cost of electricity for everyone. Solar produces the most power on days when peak plants generally run, typically, the hottest summer days when the sun is shining.

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