Solar is thriving, NJ says as it looks to redo subsidies

Assessment comes as state plans to revise incentives for developers of solar power, key to NJ’s clean-energy goals
Credit: (AP Photo/Mike Derer)
An array of solar panels on the roof of the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, NJ.

New Jersey’s solar program is thriving and will continue to grow even as the state restructures the financial incentives for developers who build new installations, officials from the state Board of Public Utilities say.

‘We believe we are on track to meet the solar energy goals in the Energy Master Plan,’’ said BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso, who acknowledged the targets are aggressive. By 2050, the plan envisions New Jersey getting 34% of its electricity from solar. Only 5% of the state’s electricity is provided by solar now.

After months of sometimes acrimonious debate with solar developers, the agency is scheduled Wednesday to unveil details of a new program designed to maintain a robust industry in New Jersey, while reducing the cost to utility customers, who currently subsidize the industry to the tune of some $750 million a year.

That expense led lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy three years ago to order the BPU to scrap a decades-old solar-incentive program that critics argued saddled ratepayers with excessive costs. The agency came up with a straw proposal earlier this year to reduce incentives, but solar builders say many of those are too low to spur developers to pursue new projects.

Specifics of new plan still unrevealed

In a call with NJ Spotlight News on Tuesday, as well as one earlier in the day with solar developers, BPU officials declined to talk about specific details on the new incentive levels. Fiordaliso, however, said he is confident the industry will continue to grow.

“Solar has been a bright spot in New Jersey’s economy,’’ he said, citing the more than 6,000 jobs the sector now supports. “That star will get brighter and brighter.’’

New Jersey has the seventh-most solar installations in the nation, supplying 3,600 megawatts of capacity to residents and businesses, according to Fiordaliso. The new solar program proposes to ramp up installation of solar systems to 750 MW a year — 300 MW of grid-supply projects, another 300 MW of smaller net-metered projects involving residential, rooftop, and ground-mounted solar systems, and 150 MW of community solar projects.

Abe Silverman, general counsel for the BPU, disputed assertions by some in the solar sector that it is no longer growing, citing the number of projects in the pipeline waiting to be built. “We think it is quite strong,’’ Silverman said.

As of June 30, there were 770 MW of solar projects awaiting approval in New Jersey. In 2019, there were only 508 MW of capacity in the pipeline and 532 MW in 2020, he said.

“From our perspective, the numbers paint a very positive picture in the state,’’ Fiordaliso said.

But Lyle Rawlings, a long-time solar developer based in Flemington, said the outlook could change, depending on the incentive levels established under the BPU’s new program. “Can it grow and can we keep it steady?” Rawlings asked.

The agency’s straw proposal creates a two-tiered program. The first would establish one that was administratively set, with fixed-level financial incentives depending upon the type of project a developer planned to build. For the most part, these included smaller residential projects and rooftops.

The other program would have developers build larger solar projects in a competitive proceeding, a system most experts say would drive down solar costs.

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