Op-Ed: Give New Jersey Solar the Chance to Shine Again

Marc Miller | January 12, 2018 | Opinion
The Garden State’s preeminence in the solar sector is long gone. With a new governor and administration, much of its luster could be recaptured

Marc Miller
Not so long ago New Jersey was the East Coast’s unquestioned leader in solar energy — and had the jobs and economy that go with industry leadership.

The state had passed some of the first and most robust solar incentives in the country in the early 2000s — and that leadership brought jobs and investment. By 2009, New Jersey ranked first on the East Coast in both solar installations and solar industry jobs. That was in the depths of the Great Recession and the solar industry was one of the few bright spots in New Jersey’s economy.

Fast forward to 2012 and New Jersey’s solar industry was in a full-on boom. In the first three quarters of that year nearly 16,000 solar projects totaling 174 megawatts were installed in the state — the most in the country and the first time any state had installed more solar than California. But things were about to change. Experts tracking the industry knew that the state’s solar industry was in trouble, saying, “We’re expecting to see a downturn in the New Jersey market.”

The experts were right and the boom was about to come to an end.

When boom goes bust

State policies that had helped fuel the boom hadn’t been designed to build smooth, steady growth. Soon, installations and hiring began to slow and New Jersey’s solar market has limped along for the last several years. Other states — in particular Massachusetts and New York — have taken over the East Coast leadership in clean-power policy, and their states have reaped the reward in jobs and investment. In the most recent Solar Jobs Census, New Jersey had dropped all the way down to 17th nationally in solar jobs per capita and has fallen to the middle of the pack in solar installations.

New political leadership offers New Jersey the opportunity to shine as a solar leader again.
As a New Jersey-based solar developer who has spent much of the last five years traveling to and developing projects elsewhere, I understand the policies in other states that are most important to investment and hiring. New Jersey should seek to implement the best of these ideas and get our solar industry growing again.

The first idea is the reform our solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) policy.

SRECs were a major reason for both New Jersey’s solar boom and bust. In 2005, when New Jersey launched its SREC program it was the first of its kind in the world. New Jersey’s SREC program provides solar owners a credit for every megawatt of energy they generate. Owners can then sell their credits on a market and New Jersey utilities need to buy a set number every year. The system worked almost too well as a way to incentivize solar construction. In fact, the incentives were so attractive that eventually there were too many solar projects and more SRECs available than utilities were required to buy. When it got to that point, the value of SRECs crashed and with it New Jersey’s solar industry.

For a better way to incentivize solar, New Jersey should follow Massachusetts’ lead and replace our SREC program with a renewable target program. The Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program provides for a fixed contract price and a fixed term for solar projects less than 5 megawatts. By providing a fixed long-term incentive rate, businesses, municipalities, and residential customers in the state can invest with confidence and avoid the boom-and-bust cycle. New Jersey should develop a similar renewable target program.

Another idea that is driving growth in other states is community solar. Community solar allows subscribers — either residents or businesses — to purchase electricity from solar projects not directly connected to their facility or home. That means residents and businesses can get the benefits of solar and offset charges on their electric bills even if they don’t have the land or roof space available to install solar themselves. New Jersey should follow the lead of the six other states across the country (Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Illinois, Minnesota, and Colorado) that have implemented community solar policy. Building a vibrant and growing community solar market opens the benefits of solar to everyone, encourages investment, and create jobs.

Building on brownfields

Finally, New Jersey should create incentives for solar on brownfields and landfills as they do in Massachusetts. The more than 800 closed landfills and approximately 10,000 brownfields in New Jersey are a drag on growth. Because these sites often require extensive cleanup, they sit unused for decades. Solar offers a great solution because it is one of few good development uses for these sites. While there has been some solar brownfield development in New Jersey, there are thousands upon thousands of sites throughout the state in which brownfield sites can be converted into “brightfield” sites, a phrase coined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Massachusetts, by providing additional incentives for solar development on landfills and brownfields, has attracted investment and put this land to work creating jobs, clean energy, and local tax revenue on over 50 percent of its closed landfills.

There are dozens of other ideas and policies that New Jersey could adopt as well. States such as Illinois have passed the ambitious Future Energy Jobs Act with a goal of producing a nearly fortyfold increase in the state’s solar capacity. Seven states have increased their Renewable Portfolio Standard commitments since the start of 2016. Solar is one of the country’s fastest-growing industries and states understand the opportunity.

New Jersey now has the benefit that we didn’t have way back in the early 2000s as pioneers in creating clean-energy policy. We can look to other states and see what has worked. If Gov.-elect Murphy and the New Jersey Legislature take the opportunity to pick and choose the best ideas, New Jersey will again shine as the East Coast’s solar leader.