New Push to Target Low-Income Communities for Solar Projects

Low- and moderate-income New Jerseyans have for the most part been left out of growing renewable-energy developments in the state. That may be about to change

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Solar panels on apartments
At least half of a new community solar program will be targeted to low- and moderate-income populations that have been largely left out of the huge growth in renewable energy over the past decade.

Details of the new three-year pilot program, published yesterday in the New Jersey Register, show that 40 percent of the capacity of the pilot will be allocated to low- and moderate-income projects; another 10 percent will be set aside for low-income community projects.

The initiative is aimed at giving access to solar energy to populations previously excluded from using the technology to power their homes whether because they could not afford it, were renters, or simply had shaded properties.

The new rule is the latest proposed by the state Board of Public Utilities to comply with a comprehensive clean-energy law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy this past spring.

The pilot is designed to develop 75 megawatts of community solar projects annually, eventually leading the state to adopt a full-scale program in three years.

Community solar is a fast-growing segment of the clean energy sector in the more than 17 other states that have adopted similar programs. Generally, it refers to local solar systems — in New Jersey’s case none larger than 5 megawatts — that allow multiple subscribers to tap into solar arrays.

Less well-off New Jerseyans subsidize solar

“For the first time, we are targeting low- and moderate-income communities that have been left out of the solar market,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “That is the most important part of this.’’

Largely because of a variety of state and federal incentives, New Jersey has witnessed the installation of more than 90,000 solar systems in recent years, but the boom has excluded less well-off populations even though they also pay a surcharge on their utility bills to subsidize the program.

The proposed pilot would prevent community solar projects from being sited on any preserved farmland, or any Green Acres preserved open space, or land owned by the state Department of Environmental Protection, except by approval of the DEP.

Enough land for cost-effective projects?

Ideally, projects would be targeted to urban areas, but many developers have expressed concerns about the lack of available land necessary to bring the systems to scale to be cost effective.

Others, however, have argued that some urban projects can be developed on the rooftops of commercial facilities — even in densely populated areas.

The proposal also gives the state agency the leeway to award additional incentives to developers for specific type of solar projects, such as in environmental-justice or low- and moderate-income communities.