The state’s largest utility is seeking to invest $275 million to build 10 solar grid-connected projects on former garbage dumps and brownfields, a proposal requiring approval from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
Public Service Electric & Gas is looking to expand an existing program to convert long-idle land into productive use, a key policy of the state’s Energy master Plan. If approved, the utility would triple the amount of solar power it produces from brownfields and landfills in New Jersey.
The filing with the regulatory agency yesterday occurs at a time when the solar market is booming in the state, with many developers in the sector pushing for more aggressive state mandates to increase its reliance on solar as a source of electricity.
Environmentalist and solar developers generally lauded the proposal, backing the idea of steering large solar projects away from open space and farmland. “It’s a great idea,’’ said Tom Wells, executive director of the New Jersey Nature Conservancy. “It is targeting lands already disturbed.’’
But others, like the Division of Rate Counsel, question whether ratepayers ought to bear those costs, allowing a regulated utility to recover its investment.
“Other companies are doing it through their unregulated entities — as PSEG is doing in other states,’’ said Stefanie Brand, director of the division. “We still question whether the ratepayer should be paying for it all.’’
More than likely, the proposal will trigger a bigger debate about the direction of the solar program in the state, which has experienced boom-and-bust cycles. Some fear the sector could falter again in 2018 when state requirements governing how much solar needs to be installed drops dramatically.
PSE&G said its new proposal would allow it to return dormant brownfields and landfills to good use when otherwise there would be limited development options. By the end of this year, it will have installed systems on nine solar farms on brownfields under a previously approved program. The systems provide 53 megawatts of capacity, enough to power about 8,500 homes annually.
“For the past several years our Solar 4 All program has helped advance public policy by greatly increasing the amount of solar power in the state, and helping New Jersey reach its aggressive renewable-energy goals,’’ said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G.
“I can’t think of a better use for closed landfills than a program like this,’’ said John Geraghty, a senior vice president of Vanguard Energy Partners, LLC in Branchburg. His solar company is completing a 7.7-megawatt solar installation for PSE&G at the ILR Landfill in Edison, which had been closed since 1986, he said.
Fred DeSanti, a former executive of PSE&G and now representing the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, also praised the utility’s proposal — with a caveat. If approved as proposed, the PSE&G plan could use up about one-third of the solar credits owners of solar arrays receive for the electricity their systems produce, he said.
If so, it would crowd out other solar developers who rely on the credits to invest in new installations. “There’s a need to make adjustments to allow everyone to work in this space,’’ DeSanti said.
PSE&G said the extension of its Solar 4 All program will create approximately 575 jobs during construction. “Every Solar 4 All project creates good jobs in a wide range of trades,’’ said Eddie Gant, business manager of IBEW Local 351.
PSE&G concentrates its solar projects within its franchise territory in New Jersey. PSEG Solar Source, a sister and unregulated company, builds utility-size grid connected projects in other states, although it also has built one in Hackettstown. It has built 16 solar projects in 12 states.
Utility-size solar projects that sell electricity to the power grid are cheaper to build than solar arrays on residential properties, which largely supply power directly to the home.