Pilot Community Solar Project Could Be Getting Its Moment in the Sun

Tom Johnson | September 6, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Murphy administration looks to deliver the benefits of solar power to low- and moderate-income customers

Credit: MD Public Service Commission
community solar
The Murphy administration is proposing a new pilot program aimed at bringing affordable solar power to low- and moderate-income customers.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has proposed a new rule to create a community solar program to allow households that have largely been unable to take advantage of the surge in solar systems throughout the state in the past decade.

The pilot, mandated under a sweeping clean-energy bill signed into law by the governor this spring, is designed to create opportunities to offer solar power to renters, multifamily dwellings, and others.

The state has seen the installation of more than 90,000 solar arrays in recent years, but the boom has, for the most part, excluded less well-off populations — even though they also pay a surcharge on utility bills to subsidize the program.

“Heretofore, they pay the SBC (societal benefits charge) just like you and I do,’’ said BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso. “This will give them an opportunity to participate in the program.’’

Community solar catching on

Community solar is a fast-growing segment of the clean-energy sector; more than 17 states already have established such programs.

Generally, it refers to local installations that allow multiple subscribers to tap into the solar systems. These are usually people who cannot install their own arrays because their dwellings are in too much shade, or the condition of the roof is unsuitable, or they are simply unable to afford the panels.

“We must ensure that these policies, which are intended to improve the environment for all residents, do not keep any population in the margins,’’ said Gov. Phil Murphy in a press release.

To that end, the proposed program carves out a 40 percent earmark of the overall capacity for low- and moderate-income projects. That provision exceeds the 15 percent target recommended by many stakeholders at a meeting earlier this summer.

But the proposal only establishes a 75-megawatt annual capacity for the community solar program, half of the 150-megawatt capacity suggested by many developers.

“The bigger the program, the more benefits it generates,’’ said Pari Kasotia, Mid-Atlantic director of Vote Solar. “To incentivize project developers, they are looking for a larger program.’’

Gathering solar statistics

But Fiordaliso said the 75-megawatt program is going to give the state the information it needs to implement full-blown community solar once the three-year pilot ends.

Others, however, worried whether targeting such a large percentage to low- and moderate-income customers can work financially.

“That’s a big pilot program,’’ said Fred DeSanti, executive director of the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, “but I don’t understand how the finances work. How is it financially viable? If it is, great.’’

Kasotia, too, expressed reservations, questioning what type of incentives are included to help customers pay for solar. Many urban communities lack the available land necessary to bring the projects to scale to be cost effective, according to developers.

“If the funding isn’t there, none of these things are going to happen,’’ added Jonathan Cloud, executive director of New Jersey PACE, who nevertheless is excited about the state finally moving forward on community solar.