TOM JOHNSON, ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT WRITER | OCTOBER 5, 2020 | ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT
The state is looking to aggressively expand its community solar program, a policy aimed at bringing energy savings to the many low- and moderate-income customers who have yet to benefit from New Jersey’s transition to cleaner energy.
In a meeting Friday, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities opted to double the capacity of a pilot program designed to bring solar projects to those customers, while at the same time adopting changes to the program that reduce time and costs to developers looking to enroll customers in the program.
That means in the second year of the pilot, developers could build up to 150 megawatts (MW) of new projects in the community solar program, which mandates at least 40% of the community solar projects be targeted to low- and moderate-income communities. In the first year, all 45 solar projects involved such communities, proposing to build 78 MW.
“We know that meaningful climate change is inextricably linked to addressing the burdens facing BPU by environmental justice communities,’’ said Joseph Fiordaliso, president of the agency. “By leveling the playing field, we will ensure an equitable and inclusive clean energy economy that creates jobs, combats climate change and provides benefits for all Garden State residents.’’
A boon to solar developers
For the initial phase, the pilot program has proved enormously attractive to solar developers. In the first go-around, 252 applications were submitted seeking to put in 650 MW of new solar capacity in those communities.
For the most part, solar developers welcomed the board’s changes, particularly those dealing with enrolling customers in pilot community solar programs and with expanding the pilot program. Both moves are aimed at increasing availability of clean energy, and possible savings on their energy bills to customers, top goals of the Murphy administration.
“Some of those changes will help realize that vision more easily,’’ said Larry Barth, director of Clean Energy Ventures of New Jersey Resources. “Some of these improvements will help us make it easier to get more solar installations.’’
The amendments propose changes that make it easier for developers, and possibly, local governments, to enroll customers in community solar projects — a process that has proved increasingly burdensome to developers because of complicated rules to verify customers who qualify as low- and moderate-income residents.
For instance, an amendment would waive a current rule requiring such developers to obtain the subscriber’s two previous years of federal tax returns.
“This is going to ease things administratively,’’ said Fred DeSanti, executive director of the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition. “It releases the burden on developers and easing verification for low- and moderate-income customers.’’
Lower energy bills for customers
In the past, developers sought to offer customers 10%-20% savings on their energy bills, but were not able to do so, due to problems with verification of customers’ eligibility, according to DeSanti.
“We are really pleased,’’ DeSanti said. “It’s a real opportunity to get this program started.’’
Fiordaliso also expressed enthusiasm for the changes made by the board. “It’s a great thing about the pilot program that you can make adjustments as you go along,’’ he said. “The primary goal is to serve those people who need these kinds of services.’’
DeSanti agreed. “Overall, the actions today represent a significant step forward in the board’s staff approach and willingness to incorporate meaningful modifications to ease the regulatory requirements of the program,’’ he said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed.
“BPU is doubling the size of the program for the next year, which is a big step forward,’’ he said. “The community solar program is working and it is good that it is expanding.’’