As solar power grows, a roadblock remains in place

Developers are building more solar power systems, but they can’t always connect to the electrical grid. NJ looks for a fix
Credit: (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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New Jersey officials are looking to fix one of the biggest problems impeding the growth of its solar sector: how to speed up connecting new solar systems with the electric grid operated by local utilities.

With the increased reliance on solar energy in the state, the number of applications from developers seeking approval to connect to distribution systems is increasing. Some utilities are not prepared to handle the increased volume of applications, and more projects are coming up against proposed interconnections on parts of the system already near their capacity.

It is an issue that threatens to jeopardize the Murphy administration’s clean-energy goals, which project a tenfold increase in the amount of solar energy providing electricity to residents and businesses by 2050. The connection problem also impacts the administration’s goal to provide offshore wind power to roughly 23% of the state’s electricity.

“The administration’s goals are not going to be accomplished unless we fix this,’’ said Lyle Rawlings, a veteran solar developer in New Jersey and one who has long called on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to address the problem.

Revising the rules

The agency, at its bimonthly virtual meeting Wednesday, voted without comment to hire a contractor to help revise its interconnection rules and make recommendations on how to modernize the grid to make it easier for the state to achieve its clean-energy goals.

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“It is incredibly important the BPU moved forward with this,’’ said Eric Miller, New Jersey energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The speed we can install these systems is dependent on how quickly we can interconnect them with the grid.’’

Fred DeSanti, executive director of the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, agreed. “It is a situation where it is getting worse,’’ he said. “It is a real issue and it is leading to a lot of new costs.’’

Not an issue for typical residential solar project

In most cases, the problem does not affect the typical residential solar project, according to solar developers, but mostly impacts bigger projects of more than 2 megawatts. In those cases, a developer may have to build a new circuit line to a substation to connect to the grid, a proposition that could cost as much as $1 million per mile, according to DeSanti.

“If you expect developers to do it, nobody can afford the interconnection costs,’’ he said. “They are going to just stop building.’’

Atlantic City Electric has shut off connections to a large number of its circuits, according to Rawlings. “It is already happening in Jersey Central Power & Light’s territory and beginning to happen in PSE&G’s (Public Service Electric & Gas) territory,’’ he said.

“Right now, there is a low-lying fruit to keep solar going for the short term,’’ Rawlings said. Eventually, however, policymakers are going to have to come up with more dramatic changes in how the grid operates with a system powered by renewable energy.

Scott Weiner, a former BPU president and head of a new consulting firm SAW Associates, called the agency’s hiring of a contractor, a significant first step. “To me, whatever is done needs to advance a 21st-century grid system,’’ he said.

Few, however, are talking about what it is going to cost for a smarter grid to integrate intermittent power sources like solar power and wind energy into an aging transmission grid that for the most part has provided reliable electric power to customers with the notable exception of extreme storm events, which have led to extensive outages.

The other big issue is who will pay for those upgrades — consumers or developers. That is likely to be a huge new debate at a time when New Jersey is trying to reduce costs for utility customers who pay up to a total of $800 million to promote solar energy in New Jersey.