Advocates and Administration Continue to Clash Over Solar

Tom Johnson | July 26, 2011 | Energy & Environment
As hearings on draft Energy Master Plan begin, vexing questions remain about residential solar vs. utility-scale installations, which deliver far cheaper power

By the numbers, New Jersey’s solar industry is racking up some pretty impressive milestones. More than 10,000 solar systems installed statewide. A total of 380 megawatts of electricity generated from those panels. A record 42 megawatts installed in June, involving 520 new solar projects.

Citing those milestones, the Christie administration yesterday defended its plans for developing new sources of renewable energy, a commitment called into question by some clean energy advocates ever since the release of a draft Energy Master Plan (EMP) last month.

That event underscored the increasingly high stakes expected over the next few months, as the state weighs dramatic changes in its energy policy. Those decisions will have significant impact on an industry experiencing rapid growth, but one that could spike electric bills in a state with some of the highest energy costs in the nation.

Holding a press conference the day before public hearings on the plan begin in Newark, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin disputed allegations that the administration is scaling back its renewable energy goals, saying the sector, particularly solar, is experiencing “explosive growth.”

“New Jersey continues to be a leader in solar,” said Martin, talking to reporters on a conference call. “There’s no intention of backing away from solar in any form.”

A New Focus for Solar

The questions about the solar program have been voiced by some solar industry advocates, as well as environmentalists, who are unhappy the draft plan changes the focus of the state’s solar program. The plan also recommends taking another look at very aggressive targets for increasing New Jersey’s reliance on solar to provide electricity to residents and businesses.

Martin stood behind those recommendations, saying they were motivated, in part, by a desire to have the market drive down the costs of solar power. The plan recommends moving away from subsidizing smaller residential projects in favor of bigger utility-scale systems, which generate cheap power because of the economies of scale.

The draft plan looks at the cost of solar, which is more expensive than electricity supplied by conventional power plants, such as nuclear or natural-gas fired plants. By 2015, the plan noted, ratepayers would be paying $525 million a year to pay off the cost of solar renewable energy certificates, which owners of solar earn for the electricity their systems produce. Those numbers have been criticized by solar energy executives, who say they are out-dated since the cost of solar is dropping every day.

Nevertheless, presenting a unified front to the administration’s plan may be difficult for the solar sector, which has grown increasingly divided over where solar systems should go and what type of installations make the most sense. Some favor building on farmland, which the plan discourages. Others want to retain rebates to encourage homeowners to put systems on their homes.

Brownfields and Landfills

Meanwhile, the administration is pushing to site solar systems on brownfields — contaminated industrial properties that lay fallow — and landfills, many of which have not been properly shut down. Martin yesterday touted the efforts to put 12,000 solar panels on an old garbage dump in Kearny, a project that will produce 3 megawatts of electricity.

Martin also touted the administration’s efforts to attract an offshore wind manufacturing industry to the state, noting $65 million is being spent to turn Paulsboro, a port in South Jersey, into the “primary wind energy port” for the region. Eleven developers have expressed interest in building wind farms off the coast of New Jersey, which the administration hopes will be the draw to lure offshore wind manufacturers to the state. New Jersey has sweetened the pot by offering up to $100 million in tax credits to manufacturers.

Clean energy advocates were unimpressed by the milestones cited by the administration.

“The success of the solar program is not something which has been achieved by the Christie administration,” argued Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “It’s because of the good policies put in place by the legislature, such as the Solar Advancement Act.” The law establishes the ambitious solar energy goals for New Jersey.

Elliott said the state’s renewable energy programs work, the goals should be remain strong, and more than ever, the markets are working. “We need to redouble our efforts to support these programs and not scale them back,” he said.

Martin, however, said the administration remains committed to aggressive renewable energy goals, citing its retention of a renewable energy portfolio standard, which requires 22.5 percent of the state’s electricity to come from clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, by 2020. Noting only 2.3 percent of New Jersey’s power comes from renewable energy now, he noted, “It’s still a long road to get to 22.5 percent.”

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, disagreed. He noted the 2008 energy master plan established a 30 percent renewable energy goal by 2020.

“New Jersey must keep this goal and not slash that target to 22.5 percent as proposed by Gov. Christie. This jeopardizes funding for renewable energy projects for homeowners and small businesses,” he said. New Jersey should be meeting the 30 percent renewable goal and striving to go beyond it, he added.