Popular solar program goes full time

Regulators make permanent effort to get low-income communities connected to solar
Credit: ODT
The solar industry employs about 7,000 people in New Jersey.

The state is planning to make permanent a pilot program that delivers electricity from community solar projects to low- and moderate-income communities that mostly have not benefited from solar’s cheaper power.

Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso announced the extension of the program Wednesday at a bimonthly meeting of the agency, setting in motion a proceeding before the board during which it will determine the parameters and scope of the new program and canceling the third year of the pilot.

The pilot proved to be surprisingly popular during its two years. In its second year, the agency received more than 400 applications from solar developers seeking to build 800 megawatts of solar projects to deliver solar energy to customers.

The board is expected to decide on what projects will move forward later this month or in November, Fiordaliso said. The agency expects to award roughly 150 megawatts of new power. In the first year of the program, all 45 community solar projects involved low- and moderate-income communities.

“Our solar industry continues to evolve,’’ said Fiordaliso, who added that community solar is an important part of the sector. “We all have to be part of it in order for it to be effective.’’

Until the community solar program, many low- and moderate-income households were left out of the solar boom in New Jersey. A variety of factors prevented those households from participating, including cost, a shaded property or lack of roof control.

Expanding access

Solar developers welcomed the announcement by the BPU, noting the agency is allocating 1,125 megawatts of community solar capacity through 2026, sending strong signals to the community solar industry and guaranteeing the market capacity that is needed to serve more New Jersey residents in a timely manner.

“We are excited to work with the BPU staff to build a permanent program in a manner that delivers more solar energy to overburdened communities, provides economic benefits to local jurisdictions, creates jobs and ensures all state residents have access to clean and renewable energy to lower their energy costs,’’ said Leslie Elder, Mid-Atlantic regional director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

Shaun Keegan, CEO of Solar Landscape in Asbury Park, called clean-energy equity a cornerstone of community solar in New Jersey. His company has completed six community solar projects in the state with two more nearly finished.

“This program is leading the nation by including all New Jersey residents in the fight against climate change, regardless of their income or ability to install their own solar panels,’’ Keegan said.

Still, the solar sector is encountering long delays in the supply chain and in winning approval to interconnections with the regional power grid, according to Fred DeSantis, executive director of the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition.

“Will it get done? That’s another issue,’’ he said.

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