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State Gives Nod to Developers of Nearly 20 Grid-Supply Solar Projects

Tom Johnson | February 10, 2014

Action by BPU seen as potentially stabilizing New Jersey's volatile solar sector

solar sun

Hoping to revive a sluggish solar sector, the state last month approved 19 relatively large projects to provide electricity from solar panels to the power grid over the next few years.

The projects, which could end up supplying 140 megawatts of electrical capacity to the grid, are in line with recommendations of bipartisan legislation enacted nearly two years ago to help revive the solar industry in New Jersey.

Unlike many of the solar projects installed in the past, when arrays were deployed on homes and businesses as a way of cutting energy bills, these systems would feed electricity directly into the grid. The bill would have allowed up to 240 megawatts of grid supply projects over the next three years, so the amount approved by the state Board of Public Utilities is far less than legislators envisioned.

Typically, one megawatt of electrical capacity can provide enough power to light up to 800 homes, but that is not true of solar energy because of the intermittent nature of sunshine. Thus, solar arrays typically deliver about 25 percent or more capacity of traditional power plants, depending on the location.

The action by the regulatory agency, however, was welcomed by clean energy advocates, who have witnessed a steep drop in the number of solar installations in New Jersey. At one time, there were more than 40 megawatts of solar capacity being installed each month in the state, but that has fallen into the single digits in recent months.

A steep drop in prices owners of solar systems earn for the electricity produced by their arrays led to the slowing of investment in the sector by developers. The falloff has imperiled New Jersey’s aggressive efforts to promote solar systems as a cleaner way of producing electricity, although critics say the strategy raises energy bills in a state already saddled with high costs for ratepayers.

Grid-supply projects, however, because of their scale allow developers to provide electricity cheaper than with smaller arrays. Two of the projects approved by the BPU also involved installing solar panels on former landfills, a priority of the Christie administration, which wants to steer grid-supply projects away from open space and farmland.

None of the 17 grid-supply projects are bigger than 10 megawatts -- with one exception -- and they range geographically from Cumberland and Salem counties in the south to Sussex and Warren in the north. Hunterdon County had six grid-supply projects approved. Some approvals, however, are conditional.

The two landfill projects approved were in Bordentown: a 10-megawatt project to be developed by Public Service Electric & Gas and a 12 megawatt project to be developed on the former Industrial Land Reclaiming Landfill in Edison by Vanguard Energy Partners, LLC.

The action of the BPU comes at a time of uncertainty for the state’s solar sector, once behind only California in the number of installations in the nation. Some experts say that the slowdown in the building of new solar systems will stabilize the market, which collapsed because too many solar credits were generated by the electricity the state’s solar systems produced.

Some industry experts view the market as stabilizing -- even with the approval of the larger grid-supply projects by the BPU.

“I think everyone is happy with the way the market is headed,’’ said Fred DeSanti, a lobbyist who represents several solar developers. “I don’t think it’s an inordinate amount of new installations.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “It’s a good thing they are finally moving forward on these projects. We’ve seen the market crash,’’ he added noting the state had once seen about 40 megawatts of new solar capacity installed each month, but it has now fallen to about 8 megawatts.

“It’s good to see the market picking up,’’ Tittel said, “We’re still far behind where we used to be and where we need to be.’’

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