Op-Ed: Let Solar Energy Grow at Schools

Lawrence S. Feinsod | April 27, 2020 | Opinion
Board of Public Utilities should continue to provide incentives to support on-site projects, which benefit education system, taxpayers and the environment
Lawrence S. Feinsod

For more than a decade, New Jersey has promoted energy policies that have created a vibrant solar energy market. Due to this forward-thinking regulatory support from the state, New Jersey’s public schools have collectively developed more than 600 solar energy projects. These solar projects provide low-cost energy to schools for 15 years or more and reduce their energy costs by millions of dollars. On top of being environmentally friendly and providing a hands-on teaching tool for students and faculty, these projects reduce schools’ operating costs and help to manage and stabilize local property taxes, all major parts of Gov. Phil Murphy’s agenda.

Now, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) is restructuring incentives and financial support for solar energy projects. The BPU should continue to provide incentives to support the growth of on-site solar projects whether they are on the ground, on roofs, or in parking lots. As has been demonstrated over the last decade, schools have space for projects that can provide significant benefits to the school community and property taxpayers. This includes benefits to school budgets, jobs for solar installers, relief to taxpayers, curriculum for students, and support for the state’s sustainable energy initiatives. Solar energy at a school signals to students and the entire community that solar is here, and it works.

Setting the right incentives

One area that needs immediate attention is setting the right incentive for ground-mounted projects at schools (and other user sites). Surprisingly, the BPU set the incentive for such projects at a level that is too low. This action will block development of ground-mounted projects at schools, which can reduce energy costs and help stabilize property taxes.

The BPU based its decision to reduce the incentive for ground-mounted projects based on the cost of larger commercial projects without recognizing the costs (and benefits) of smaller projects on school property, and on a belief that it would be improper to incentivize solar projects on greenfields. Schools have unused land around their facilities that is suitable for hosting a solar system that will, under the BPU’s incentive structure, be undervalued and remain undeveloped.

We understand and support New Jersey’s desire to preserve open space and to reduce the incentive for solar development on greenfields and farmlands, but the unused land next to a school building is far from that — it is an ideal location for cost-saving solar energy. In both its transition and successor programs, the BPU should revise its incentive for on-site ground- mounted solar projects, so that schools can continue growing renewable energy benefits.

The New Jersey School Boards Association calls upon the BPU and Gov. Murphy to continue policies that make our state and its public schools national leaders in sustainability and solar energy by providing effective incentives to encourage new land, roof and canopy solar projects at schools. Our students, our taxpayers — and our environment — are counting on it.