NJ’s Low-Income Families Could Get Solar, Thanks to Obama Administration

Community-based solar could bring some sunshine to residents without roof space or capital to go it alone, but state Legislature needs to act

solar low income
Hoping to increase access to solar energy, particularly for low- and moderate-income families, the Obama administration yesterday announced an initiative to develop community-based solar projects.

The concept, already adopted by some states, aims to provide solar power to the nearly 50 percent of households in the United States that rent or do not have adequate roof space or enough capital to install renewable-energy systems. The initiative also applies to small businesses.

These types of community-based programs do not exist in New Jersey and would require legislative action to be set up, according to solar executives. The state has more than 35,000 solar systems installed, most of them rooftop arrays on single-family homes and businesses.

Still, the market for community solar is expected to grow dramatically in the next five years, according to GTM Research, a division of Greentech Media.

“We view community solar as the next growth market to watch as more legislation rolls out and community solar developers scale up their footprint across the U.S.,” said GTM Research Cory Honeyman, a senior solar analyst.

The Obama administration’s plan calls for installing 300 megawatts of renewable energy in federally subsidized housing and providing technical assistance to achieve that goal.

The effort could be aided by more than $560 million in independent commitments from philanthropic and other investors, as well as from states and cities looking to promote community solar, according to the administration.

To some, a recurring criticism of the state’s current solar program is that it most benefits those with the upfront capital to install the systems, which earn money for their owners for the electricity the arrays produce. That money comes, in part, from surcharges on customers’ bills, most of whom do not have solar.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, praised the Obama initiative for addressing that issue.

“It will help raise the standard of living for people in urban communities because they will use less power,’’ he said. “We need to create environmental equity when it comes to solar.’’

Others also said the Obama plan could benefit New Jersey, but only if the state ramps up how much electricity comes from solar systems over the next several years.

“It makes a lot of sense. It’s being done in a lot of other states,’’ said Thomas Lynch, executive vice president of KDC Solar, a developer of large-scale solar systems based in Bedminster. “It could very well be a piece of the solar equation in New Jersey.’’

Like others in the solar sector, however, he said it would require legislation to make it happen.

“This is clearly something the Legislature would need to consider down the road in terms of setting up the legal structure,’’ said Fred DeSanti, a lobbyist who represents solar developers.

“Clearly, this concept could work in New Jersey,’’ he said. “There’s a real opportunity to do a lot more solar in New Jersey.’’ He said the proposal will provide access to renewable energy resources for those who either do not have roof space or financial resources to undertake these projects by themselves.