In a year of much tumult and controversy, 2019 also turned out to be a record-breaking year for New Jersey’s solar energy program, with more solar capacity installed than any previous year.
Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019, more than 447 megawatts of solar capacity was installed in New Jersey, according to the state’s Clean Energy Program. Solar power now provides 5% of the state’s energy needs, or up to 3,190 MW of capacity.
The ramp-up is significant given all the uncertainty that surrounded the program over the Murphy administration’s efforts to rein in solar costs, and a decision to end the current method of financing projects — largely on the backs of utility customers. That, however, may have pushed solar developers to finish projects by the end of the year to qualify for the more lucrative incentives under the old system.
‘Rush to the exit’
“It was clearly a rush to the exit,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “There was a big push to finish projects as solar continues to accelerate. So the bigger question is how does New Jersey stop the solar roller coaster and create a sustainable path for solar growth.’’
But state officials argued the record demonstrates its commitment to solar, and its part in achieving a clean energy future.
“In New Jersey, we are incredibly proud of our solar industry,’’ said Board of Public Utilities president Joseph Fiordaliso. “From the standout year we had in 2019 and for many decades to come, one of our top priorities is to keep the industry thriving as we work to combat climate change and meet Gov. Murphy’s goal of 100 percent clean energy.’’
The state’s previous record for the highest amount of installed solar capacity within a calendar year was in 2011, when 446.8 MW commenced commercial operations.
Nearly 9,000 solar industry jobs
New Jersey, although the fifth-smallest state in land area, was once considered a national leader in solar, ranking second at one time for installed solar capacity. It now ranks seventh in solar capacity and ninth overall in clean energy jobs, with nearly 9,000 solar industry jobs in the state.
The state’s new Energy Master Plan proposes an even more significant growth in solar, recommending New Jersey build 17,000 MW of solar by 2035 and that solar provide 34% of the state’s energy mix in 30 years.
“We’re on the right track,’’ said Fred DeSanti of the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition. “Things are going pretty well.’’ The state’s transition program until a more permanent way of financing solar projects is established will help some parts of the sector, although not others, he said.
Other solar developers are worried the incentives allocated to residential solar projects and ground-mounted arrays built by schools, municipalities and others will not be built because the economics will no longer work. About 40% of the workforce builds solar systems on homes.
“As we go down the road, there will be challenges, but we can’t say it’s been a bad year,” DeSanti said.
More affordable for ratepayers
The state says it is working closely with stakeholders to develop a new solar incentive structure that will ensure continued robust growth for the industry while making it more affordable and sustainable for ratepayers. Those costs now run about a half-billion dollars a year.
“Solar always has — and always will — have a major presence in New Jersey, and will continue to create jobs, improve air quality and public health, and ease our reliance on more polluting fuel sources,’’ Fiordaliso said.
One of the biggest challenges facing the sector right now is being able to connect solar projects with the existing power grid, a problem that is already prevalent in South Jersey, but expected to move to other areas in the future.