A controversial bill to open up more agricultural land to large utility-scale solar farms ended up being held yesterday amid signs of a potential policy dispute between lawmakers and the Murphy administration.
The legislation (S-2605) aims to reverse a policy initiated under the Christie administration that sought to keep solar projects from being built on agricultural and other open spaces, a priority backed by many conservation organizations.
The debate reflects competing policy priorities that both sides support: preserving farmland and open space in the nation’s most densely populated state and simultaneously developing a framework to achieve Gov. Phil Murphy’s clean-energy goals, which include having 34% of New Jersey’s electricity delivered by solar energy by midcentury.
Utility-scale solar key to clean-energy goals
Both sides agree New Jersey will never achieve Murphy’s goal without larger grid-scale projects that are cheaper and more cost-effective than solar panels put on residential rooftops or ground-mounted panels installed on corporate campuses.
The legislation, however, drew criticism from both the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and the state’s Division of Rate Counsel, as well as others who never got a chance to testify before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), tabled the bill when it became clear he did not have the votes to release it.
Smith spent a couple hours on Friday conferring with the BPU about the bill, and other issues. He described a letter received from the agency yesterday morning as “positive’’ — a characterization disputed by Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex).
Codey noted the agency’s letter indicated the bill could add “substantial new costs’’ to the solar program and saddle ratepayers with unnecessary costs, according to the BPU staff. The agency also noted it is pursuing its own utility-scale solar market in its letter to the committee, although endorsing the intent of the legislation.
Rate counsel opposes new costs during COVID-19
In another letter to the committee, Rate Counsel director Stefanie Brand opposed the bill, saying it could provide a windfall to solar developers at a time when ratepayers can least afford it because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would shift the risk that utility-scale companies may face when selling their power into the regional grid’s markets, Brand said.
Smith appeared unswayed by those arguments, pinning the blame on the BPU for not doing its job to promote solar energy.
“We’re at 5%,’’ he said, referring to how much of the state’s electricity comes from solar energy. “That’s an abomination. It’s a disgrace,’’ he added before closing the hearing.
Earlier in the hearing, Smith and legislative staff detailed more than two-dozen amendments that had been proposed to the bill. One reduced the amount of utility-scale solar to be built from 3,000 megawatts by 2030 to 1,500 megawatts by 2026, a change prompted by criticism the initial goal was too aggressive, according to developers, Smith said.
Keeping solar sites out of Pinelands
More significantly, the bill will amend significantly land in the state where the utility-scale solar could be built. Under the proposed amendments, restrictions would be put in place for portions of the Pinelands, the Highlands, preserved farmland and freshwater wetlands.
That was not enough, according to Tom Gilbert of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. The State Agricultural Development Council, the lead agency for farmland preservation in the state, projects 240,000 acres of unprotected farmland needs to be preserved to maintain a viable agricultural system, he said.
The proposed bill also would be amended to increase the amount of solar energy that would be required to be purchased by utilities and others in future years. Brand said the new increase will be a new cost to ratepayers.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, conceded the overall costs for the solar program may increase, but the costs per megawatt will go down while the state expands its reliance on solar energy.