Op-Ed: Solar Program Must Work for Underserved Communities in NJ

Tom Figel, Pari Kasotia | October 9, 2018 | Opinion
State’s new solar energy possibilities should be equitable and accessible to all New Jerseyans. It’s up to Board of Public Utilities to make that happen

Pari Kasotia and Tim Figel
Gov. Phil Murphy signed bold renewable-energy legislation in May. It includes a new community solar program to give renters, families with shared or shaded rooftops, businesses that lease, and many others a way to access clean, renewable solar energy for the first time. It’s an exciting vision for making sure our new clean economy works for everyone, and now it’s up to regulators at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) to deliver on that vision.

After weeks of stakeholder input, the BPU has released proposed rules for the new community-solar pilot program. The community solar docket sought stakeholder feedback to establish rules for the pilot program with the goal of ensuring that low- and moderate-income (LMI) customers as well as environmental justice communities, communities of color and other traditionally underserved communities fully benefit from the program.

While the proposed rules include strong targets for LMI participation, we will continue to advocate for financial incentives to support projects for low-income communities. This is especially important given the sunset of the New Jersey Solar Renewable Energy Credit program. Any SREC successor should also include targeted support for low-income projects, as states like Massachusetts have implemented.

The BPU’s proposal includes an initial program capacity of 75 megawatts. However, the BPU has discretion to support significant clean-energy additions to the state’s economy in the future. For example, a three-year 450 MW community solar program has the potential to generate tremendous economic benefits for the state, including 1,778 sustained full-time jobs and $414.7 million in earnings for those employed on such a project over three years. A recent study by GTM Research projects that community solar can catalyze up to $5 billion in investment in New Jersey, including $65 million in local lease and tax revenue.

Reducing energy costs

When done right, community solar can also provide tremendous impact for the community. Programs that are designed for the public good can reduce energy costs for families with limited incomes; provide job training opportunities to ensure that new jobs are accessible to disadvantaged youth, returning citizens, and others who face barriers to employment; increase local ownership of energy assets; and reduce the need for costly and polluting peaker power plants, which are disproportionately sited in low-income communities and communities of color.

We encourage the BPU to put equity and community impact at the center of their rule-making so that New Jerseyans of all backgrounds, especially those who have not traditionally had access to the direct benefits of New Jersey’s solar investments, can get the greatest possible benefit from this important opportunity. As ratepayers, low-income customers have paid for program incentives and bill credits through their energy bills in the past, without proportionate access to benefits. It’s time for this to change.

We commend the BPU in proposing a robust carve-out for serving low- and moderate-income customers, in aggregate for the entire program; but this must be matched with strong and sustainable financial incentives to ensure the carve-out is successful and benefits are maximized for these customers.

History shows that low-income and disadvantaged customers are unlikely to participate in solar programs if they don’t see significant cost savings in their utility bills. A stable, long-term funding source will be crucial to ensuring this, providing certainty to both program participants and project developers. States like California, New Hampshire and Illinois, and Washington D.C., have all set aside funds to support the participation of low-income customers.

Breaking down barriers

The BPU can also reduce barriers to access by automatically qualifying households already participating in energy-assistance programs, such as the Low-Income Home Assistance Program. States like Colorado have integrated solar with weatherization programs to offer a comprehensive approach to reducing the energy burden for low-income customers. Solar can help move state LIHEAP programs from an annual subsidy to a long-term, sustainable solution to energy poverty.

The BPU should also consider incentives such as waivers for interconnection fees or added financial incentives for projects sited in underserved communities to ensure broad access and to incentivize community ownership.

Most importantly, any new community solar program should be shaped by the very communities being served. Program administrators should meet face-to-face with stakeholders in low-income and environmental justice communities to hear their vision and understand their needs. Investing time and resources will go a long way to ensuring robust participation and maximizing impact.

We see a bright future powered with solar for all New Jerseyans. But to realize this future, we must prioritize and amplify the voices of low-income customers, environmental justice communities and communities of color, and create programs that expand access to benefits effectively and efficiently.

The stakes could not be higher for New Jersey and its underserved residents, and the opportunity could not be greater to develop a community solar program that drives equity, access, and inclusion for the state.