NJ Looks to Capitalize on New Federal Subsidies for Solar

State is looking to revamp its solar program, ramping up its reliance on the renewable energy

solar array
The state is moving to overhaul its program to promote solar energy, a step proponents say will reap “maximum benefits” from new federal incentives to bolster the technology.

A bill (S-2276) scheduled to be considered by the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee tomorrow, would sharply ramp up the deployment of solar systems in New Jersey over the next few years.

Perhaps more significantly, the legislation, already adopted by the Senate, aims to chart the future course of solar policies in New Jersey. That includes whether electric and gas customers should continue subsidizing growth of the sector through a surcharge on their monthly bills.

By accelerating the state’s reliance on solar, clean-energy advocates hope it will avert the boom-and-bust cycle experienced by the industry in the decade it has taken hold in New Jersey. The market here crashed five years ago in 2012 when the price of state incentives — dubbed solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) —fell significantly, drying up investment in the sector and causing widespread job losses.

Beyond boosting the solar market, proponents argue that stepping up the state’s dependence on renewable energy is essential to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels to generate the electricity residents and businesses need in New Jersey.

Critics, however, question at what cost. The state Division of Rate Counsel has cautioned lawmakers about the expense of accelerating solar systems, projecting it could cost utility customers an additional $276 million, an estimate disputed by clean energy advocates.

New federal tax credits and depreciation allowances approved by Congress should help lower the cost of solar, they argued. “It’s a $130 million gift from Congress,’’ said Fred DeSanti, a lobbyist who represents the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, referring to the potential value of the incentives to solar companies in the state.

The bill has won support from environmental groups although they say it does not go far enough in pushing policies to support renewable energy.

“It’s probably the best we can hope for to avoid another crash like we had five years ago,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“We need a short-term fix for solar,’’ agreed Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “That’s what this clearly is, but we need a long-term fix on renewable energy.’’

Part of that answer is another bill making its way through the Legislature, which would require 80 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy by 2050. That bill has passed the Senate, but yet to be taken up by the Assembly.

With the state under mandate to achieve steep reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions to combat climate change, environmentalists say a much greater reliance on renewable energy is crucial to reaching that goal.

Some questioned, however, whether a study commission can help achieve that goal. “Having a commission under Gov. (Chris) Christie is a recipe for failure,’’ O’Malley said.

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