Giving Communities an Affordable Way to Finance Renewable Energy

Tom Johnson | June 21, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Easy access to funds is part of the key, along with a special assessment on improved buildings, such as churches, schools, and factories

solar church
Clean-energy advocates are pushing a bill that would give communities access to financing for solar and other renewable-energy systems, as well as storm-resiliency projects.

The legislation (S-1570), a modified version of a measure conditionally vetoed last year by Gov. Chris Christie, aims to help municipalities create a program to finance such projects by a special assessment on property owners.

The program offers a way for property owners to obtain low-cost financing to install solar arrays and other renewable-energy systems, micro-grids, and flood-resistant devices to make their buildings more resilient during extreme storms.

Modeled on programs now in place in 32 states, the so-called PACE (property assessed clean energy) system is a way to access financing without any upfront cost, a hurdle that prevents such projects from moving forward, according to backers.

To address concerns raised by Christie, the bill now applies only to industrial, commercial, and tax-exempt or nonprofit entities, such as hospitals, schools, or religious institutions. The original bill also would have applied to residential properties, but the new version only would allow financing for such properties with five or more units.

“It’s a new approach to providing funding for these kind of projects,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which released an identical bill last week. An Assembly version (A-2080) won approval from the Appropriations Committee yesterday.

Beyond providing a means of financing renewable-energy systems and energy-efficiency and energy storage projects, the bill was amended by the committee to include storm shelters and hurricane-resistant and flood-resistant initiatives.

“Everybody in the industry wants this,’’ said Gus Escher, a founding member of NJ PACE, which has been working on the legislation for several years.

Under the bill, participating municipalities would arrange financing through lenders who would be repaid by a special assessment on the improved building.

“We believe this bill is a step in the right direction by allowing a new funding mechanism for people and property impacted by storms to rebuild and to increase solar on their homes,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

For a municipality to participate in the program, it needs to secure approval from the state Division of Local Government Services in the Department of Community Affairs.