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Legislation Seeks to Break Logjam Delaying Solar Grid-Supply Projects

Tom Johnson | December 5, 2013

Lawmakers side with developers who have filed lawsuit against Board of Public Utilities

Assemblyman Upendra Chivakula (D-Somerset).
Assemblyman Upendra Chivakula (D-Somerset).

Some New Jersey lawmakers are backing efforts by big solar-energy developers to build grid-supply projects on farmland and other areas, in a dispute that already has landed in the courts.

The legislators, saying a state agency has misinterpreted a 1-year-old law aimed at reviving the solar sector, called on the Board of Public Utilities to take action to reinstate solar grid-supply projects that have been blocked by the Christie administration.

After the agency approved just three of 57 grid-supply projects pending before it, a trade association representing the developers filed a half-billion-dollar, 16-count lawsuit against the agency last month, claiming they have lost millions of dollars they had invested in the projects.

Lawmakers are taking up their cause, including the sponsor of the legislation, which is dubbed the Solar Act of 2012.

“By wrongfully implementing the Solar Act and changing the rules for projects already in the development pipeline, the BPU has unfairly obstructed important renewable energy projects and denied the state millions of dollars in economic investment,’’ said Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset), who also is chairman of the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.

A sponsor of the law, Chivukula said the bill was intended to recognize the significant investment made by the development community and to approve projects already in the pipeline if all other requirements were met.

The legislation would allow the BPU to approve 80 megawatts of grid-supply projects each year over the next three years. Grid-supply solar systems feed electricity directly into the regional power grid, generally at a lower cost than smaller arrays, and help the grid deliver its biggest output at peak periods, on hot summer days.

At one time, the state encouraged large grid-supply projects, but that support has evaporated in the wake of the tumult engulfing New Jersey’s solar sector and a decision by the Christie administration to steer such projects away from existing farmland and instead promote large-scale solar-energy systems on old garbage dumps and brownfields.

At the same time, some in the solar industry fear that the large grid-supply projects could cripple the state’s effort to stabilize the sector, which most agree has seen too many solar-energy systems being installed, a trend that has driven down the price of solar credits owners of the arrays earn for the electricity they produce.

The dispute reflects the fractured nature of New Jersey’s solar-energy sector, which was once the second-largest in terms of installations in the nation. Smaller firms, installing more modest systems for homes and small businesses, fear the grid supply projects, if allowed to move forward, would further depress the prices of solar credits and dry up investment in the sector.

Assemblyman Robert Clifton (R-Monmouth) disputed that view, saying many of the large grid-supply projects are being unfairly denied due to retroactive limitations set by the BPU. “It is unwarranted, and it is blocking revenue and jobs,’’ he said.

BPU spokesman Greg Reinert declined comment, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Jim Spano, president of the New Jersey Grid Supply Association, said litigation was the only option for its membership, which is comprised of 20 grid-supply developers.

“The bureaucratic obstruction of these solar grid applications has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars of investment by businesses that the state originally incentivized to pursue these exact types of renewable energy projects,’’ Spano said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the failure to move the larger grid-supply projects forward may be because such renewable-energy projects are being held hostage to Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions.

“We will never meet our clean-energy needs,’’ Tittel said. “By not allowing solar on some unpreserved fields, we are taking away some important opportunities for solar.’’

Some conservation groups, however, take issue with that stance, saying the state should not encourage building solar arrays on New Jersey’s rapidly dwindling farmland.

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