Solar Energy for the Less Well-Off in NJ: A Pilot Program Is Approved

Tom Johnson | January 18, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Also available to schools, local governments and nonprofits, the program is a scaled-down version of what solar advocates originally wanted

solar array
The state yesterday approved a pilot program aimed at making solar energy available to low- and moderate-income households, a policy that could lower their energy bills.

The state Board of Public Utilities unanimously approved a three-year pilot program that’s modeled, in part, after programs already in place in at least 17 other states. If successful, the pilot could bring solar power to between 20,000 and 30,000 homes, according to proponents.

The concept, known as community solar, has been pushed by solar advocates for years as a way of making the technology accessible to those who have yet to benefit from the solar boom in New Jersey during the past decade.

For a variety of factors, much of the population has been unable to use solar power to lower electric bills. Either they rent, or have shaded rooftops, or simply cannot afford the initial outlay to put solar on their property.

The program aims to solve that problem by allowing customers to sign up for a community solar subscription — either by purchasing an ownership share of a community solar system somewhere else in the locality or signing up for a monthly subscription. Subscribers will receive a credit on their monthly bill.

BPU head: It ‘has not been accessible to everyone’

“Solar has been extremely successful in New Jersey — with the state having passed 100,000 installations in 2018 — but has not been accessible to everyone,’’ said BPU president Joseph Fiordaliso. “The point of this pilot program is to take the first step toward ensuring we change this dynamic.’’

A mandate to create a community solar program was part of a comprehensive clean-energy bill signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy last May. “Environmental justice for those who have been left behind is one of the cornerstones of my administration,’’ the governor said in a statement after the BPU approved the pilot at its monthly meeting.

But the program is a scaled-down version of what solar advocates originally had sought. The pilot has an annual capacity limit of 75 megawatts for the first year and at least 75 MW for the second and third years, although the BPU can expand the program.

Advocates had sought 150 MW a year, arguing the bigger the program, the more benefits it could generate for both developers and subscribers. At least 40 percent of the program is targeted toward low- and moderate-income families, a provision mostly endorsed by advocates.

‘…still just scratching the surface’

“Community solar gives everyone, regardless of their income level or what kind of building they call home, the opportunity to benefit from safe, affordable solar power,’’ said Pari Kasotia, Mid-Atlantic director for Vote Solar.

The community solar program also is available to schools, local governments and nonprofits, but some advocates fear they will not participate in the pilot because the credit they will receive on their bills may be too low to justify joining. If so, that could make the overall program more costly to residential customers who opt to join.

“As sunny as today’s BPU decision is, we’re still just scratching the surface of New Jersey’s community solar opportunity, and we hope to work with state leaders to continue improving and expanding this critical clean energy program in years to come,’’ said Brandon Smithwood, policy director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access.’’

In approving the pilot, the BPU approved the final rules for the program, which are not yet public. The final rule proposal is to be published in the New Jersey Register in a few weeks.