Op-Ed: Legislature Must Act to Save Solar Industry

Abigail Ross Hopper | March 22, 2018 | Opinion
If the Legislature balks at taking action to avert a crisis in the solar sector, thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment could be imperiled

Abigail Ross Hopper
The debate on New Jersey’s energy bills has largely been focused on the controversy surrounding nuclear issues. Yet what is getting lost amid that debate is something more tangible: New Jersey’s solar industry is facing a crisis, and thousands of jobs will be lost in a matter of weeks unless the Legislature takes swift action.

Fortunately, legislators recently introduced a bill that separates solar from the nuclear provisions that were in the omnibus bill. We urge lawmakers to act on the solar bill. If they don’t, they will cause a crash in a burgeoning sector in the state’s economy that employs 7,100 workers. Inaction would hurt hundreds of local businesses and the families that rely on them.

Ironically, we reached this point because of the strength of the state’s solar market. New Jersey has installed so much solar that it has met its renewable-energy goal a decade ahead of schedule.

For those of us in the industry, we marvel at how New Jersey has managed to outpace sunnier states to become the fifth largest solar state in the nation. Driving through New Jersey, this is abundantly clear. Town after town, you see houses with solar panels and know those families are seeing lower energy bills every month. That’s why major businesses like Amazon, Anheuser-Busch, and AT&T have all installed big solar arrays. Last year, New Jersey added 1,100 solar jobs.

However, because of this rapid growth, the industry is about to hit a standstill. The solar energy required to meet New Jersey’s clean-energy obligations under state law drops significantly next year — down 55 percent to 57 megawatts. It stays at about that rate for the three following years. For context, New Jersey installed 357 megawatts of solar just last year.

I’ve spoken to many New Jersey solar businesses, and they are nervous. Firms will be forced to lay off workers and retrench. They may shift investment to other states. The loss would be significant; today, the solar industry is bringing $8.3 billion of investment into the Garden State.

On top of President Donald Trump’s harmful tax on solar in the form of tariffs, which are predictably raising the price of solar, legislative inaction would be a devastating blow. Now more than ever, states need to step up to help their solar workforces stay strong.

The Legislature has a clear choice. The new bills, introduced jointly in the House and Senate, would provide the much-needed short-term fix to stabilize the state’s solar market. The measure would raise the state’s solar energy goal to require 5.1 percent of New Jersey’s electricity to come from solar by 2021, up from 4.1 percent.

No matter what energy bill moves forward, this provision must pass — or we will see job losses by summer.

The bill has other thoughtful provisions to help more New Jersey residents, including cost-containment measures to save consumers approximately $350 million over existing law and a requirement that the state develop a new long-term solar strategy. It would also create a community solar program to make solar accessible to renters, low-income residents, and businesses that do not own their roofs — all groups that previously faced barriers to installing solar.

These are major steps for New Jersey and will put it on a path to meeting Gov. Phil Murphy’s recently announced goal of obtaining 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Even more important, the legislation will protect the jobs of New Jersey’s 7,100-strong solar workforce. With the clock ticking, the Legislature must act now to save this vital part of New Jersey’s economy.