With 2 Gigawatts of Capacity Installed, NJ Solar Sector Shines

BPU indicates that milestone means state has fourth-highest cumulative amount of solar capacity nationwide

Solar array
The state marked a significant milestone at the close of the year when it surpassed 2,000 megawatts of installed solar capacity.

With nearly 66,000 solar projects deployed, the state had more than 2,003 megawatts (or 2 gigawatts) of solar capacity as of December 31, according to a New Jersey Solar Installation report.

Given the up-and-down nature of the solar sector in the state over the past decade, the achievement is somewhat noteworthy. The Christie administration, often criticized by environmental groups, quickly took a victory lap, noting 94 percent of all installed capacity came during the governor’s tenure.

“Through this administration’s efforts to support solar, New Jersey has achieved the fourth-highest cumulative amount of installed solar capacity in the country,’’ said Board of Public Utilities President Richard Mroz. “We are ensuring a future where distributed solar energy generation remains an important part of New Jersey’s energy future.’’

At some points, that future was uncertain. The state’s solar sector began taking off under the administration of BPU President Jeanne Fox. In part, that growth was fueled by generous grants given to homeowners and commercial businesses to install the clean-energy systems.

The sector continued to grow even after the state cut back on grants and relied on loans and what then were generous solar credits for the electricity the systems generated. In fact, the program was so successful, it collapsed as prices for the solar credit fell dramatically, drying up investment in the sector, causing the loss of thousands of jobs.

The industry was revived under bipartisan legislation signed by Gov. Chris Christie that accelerated mandates for solar installations. Since then, the sector has continued to grow. So much so, that installed capacity in 2016 of 353 megawatts ranks as the state’s second-highest year behind 2012 with 417 megawatts. There are now more than 60,000 residential solar arrays, 3,8000 commercial systems, and 550 school and 200 government projects.

“This solar program wouldn’t be where it is today, if it were not for Gov. Christie,’’ said Fred DeSanti, a lobbyist who represents several clients in the solar sector. “This governor kept the program moving.’’

The industry is pressing to once again accelerate mandates for reliance on solar with a bill currently pending in the Legislature. The legislation (S-2276) is viewed as a short-term fix to maintain stability in the sector.

In addition, another bill (S-1707) would ramp up overall targets for renewable energy, requiring 80 percent of the state’s electricity to come from clean energy by 2050. That bill also is pending in the Legislature.

While solar generally is widely supported, some critics question whether the state needs to continue subsidizing the sector given its growth. By the Division of Rate Counsel’s estimate, utility customers are on the hook for almost $5 billion in supporting solar and other renewable energy technologies through surcharges on their monthly bills through 2028.