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Tiny Garden State Utility Tops in Solar Power Nationwide

With solar the fastest-growing source of electricity, NJ companies rank high in study of sector.

Not many may have heard of the Vineland Municipal Utilities Authority, but it is the nation's leader in providing solar-powered electricity to its 25,000 customers, according to a study released yesterday.

The analysis, compiled by the Solar Energy Power Association, reflects just how much solar has taken off in New Jersey, with three of the state's four electric utilities ranking among the top 10 nationwide in the amount of electricity generated from solar units installed or the number of watts produced from solar during 2011.

It is also an indication of how much the state's utilities are driving New Jersey's efforts to promote solar, which many fear could be undercut by a steep drop in the prices the owners of the systems earn for the power their units produce.

Nationwide, more than 1,500 megawatts of solar-powered electricity was installed in 2011, more than twice the amount that was put in the previous year, according to the association, a nonprofit organization. The amount of solar installed across the county is equivalent to about six natural gas-powered plants, making solar the fastest growing source of electricity in the country.

New Jersey illustrated that trend with Public Service Electric & Gas, Jersey Central Power & Light, and Atlantic City Electric -- all of which were cited in the study.

The study's release comes at a time when the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is considering whether to expand the utilities' solar promotion efforts, a move that is strongly supported by the solar industry. To many, the extension of the programs will help stabilize the market, which some fear could crash.

PSE&G ranked third nationwide, behind two California utilities, installing 74.7 megawatts of solar capacity. The ranking is hardly a surprise because the Newark utility has invested big dollars in installing solar on utility poles; on homes and businesses through a solar loan program; and on brownfields.

Jersey Central Power & Light ranked ninth in the country, installing 22.9 megawatts through its solar program, which help homeowners install systems under long-term contracts. Atlantic City Electric finished 12th in the nation in total watts installed but ranked number nine in the number of watts provided by solar per customer, at 28 percent. OK? PSE&G ranked second, with 35 watts per customer provided by solar.

On a watts-per-customer basis, the Vineland Municipal Electric Utility took the top spot nationwide. A newcomer to the list, the municipal utility in Cumberland County provided an unprecedented 769 watts per customer, after integrating 19 megawatts of photovoltaic panels for their nearly 25,000 customers.

The ranking is significant because the utility used to operate one of the dirtiest coal plants in the state to produce electricity for its customers.

Interestingly, the study showed that there is a growing trend to build utility-led projects, with the company either owning or contracting for the solar power. That is in contrast to a few years ago when the market was dominated by customer-owned, net-metered systems that do not supply electricity directly to the grid.

The conflict over large grid-supply solar projects and customer-owned systems is one of the factors causing gridlock in New Jersey over what to do about the falling prices solar systems earn for their owners. Most argue it is a result of overly generous incentives, which have caused a glut in the supply of solar renewable energy certificates, which pay owners of the systems for the electricity they produce.

A straw proposal, developed by the Office of Clean Energy, calls for an additional 120 megawatts of solar capacity to be built through utility-run programs over the next three years, which would amount to roughly 40 megawatts annually. Industry executives, however, want the program to be more robust, suggesting at least double is needed to stabilize the market, as well as limiting the amount of huge grid-supply projects approved.

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