NJ Makes Move to Bring Solar Power to Communities that Have Been Locked Out

New Jersey has given billions of dollars in ratepayer subsidies for solar systems, largely to benefit the better-off. It’s now pushing to include less affluent residents

Credit: Arielle Lawson/Creative Commons
Solar apartments
The state yesterday began mapping out ways to bring the benefits of solar power to communities underserved by the technology, with a focus on making it available and affordable to low-and moderate-income and urban customers.

Those populations have largely been left out of the surge in solar systems throughout New Jersey during the past decade, when more than 90,000 arrays have been installed here. The cost has not been inexpensive — billions of dollars in ratepayer subsidies have been handed out to make it happen, with often the beneficiaries being higher-income suburban residents.

Trying to address that inequity is the goal of a new pilot “community solar’’ program that aims to offer opportunities to bring clean energy to renters, multi-family dwellings, and environmental-justice communities.

Community solar is a fast-growing segment of the clean-energy sector; more than 17 states have already enacted programs to allow such projects. Generally, it refers to local solar systems that allow multiple subscribers to tap into the solar arrays.

The pilot is yet to be formalized, but Board of Public Utility staff have heard input from solar developers, utility officials and clean energy advocates on the size, scope and other aspects of the program. Under a law that Gov. Phil Murphy signed in May, the agency needs to adopt a regulatory framework for the program by early next year.

It can be very cost-effective

The early drafts of the program envision building 150 megawatts of community-solar projects a year, with no project exceeding 5 megawatts of capacity. Based on input from solar executives at a meeting in the Rutgers University College Avenue Student Center in New Brunswick yesterday, that should be enough to drive investment from solar developers.

“This can be done really cost-effectively,’’ said Melissa Kemp, policy director for the Northeast for Cyprus Renewables, a solar developer. “The scale, when done effectively, does not have a big scary impact.’’

She and many others at the session urged the state to carve out at least 15 percent of the pilot for low- and moderate-income customers. The legislation does not target a specific carve-out for those customers, but some said it is imperative those populations begin to benefit from solar energy.

Pari Kasotia, Mid-Atlantic director of Vote Solar, urged the state to ensure environmental justice communities — those burdened with pollution — benefit from the pilot. They should benefit from not only having clean energy delivered to where they live, but also increased job opportunities from the community-solar projects, Kasotia said.

Rev. Rob Gregson, representing the Unitarian Universalist Faith Action of New Jersey, agreed. “We are very concerned that LMI (low-moderate income) communities benefit as much as possible,’’ Gregson said.

Going to the rooftops

The dilemma, however, is that many urban communities lack the available land necessary to bring in projects of such scale to be cost effective, according to some developers. Others argued some urban projects can be developed on the rooftops of commercial facilities — even in densely populated areas.

More controversial is whether the state should allow community-solar projects to be sited on farmland or open space. Kemp argued a soon-to-be released study suggests there are not enough brownfields, landfills, parking lots or rooftops to meet the state’s aggressive solar goals without targeting uneconomical agricultural land.

Jeanne Fox, a former president of the BPU, argued otherwise, saying “we should attempt to avoid using open space as much as possible.”

Several developers advised the state to consider adopting incentives to foster solar projects on sites where it might be difficult to build solar arrays, such as landfills. Others said incentives may be necessary to build solar projects of smaller scale, or anything under 5 MW.