Thursday, June 2, 2016

Large-scale NJ solar farm plan draws praise and concern

Solar panels at the PSE&G solar farm in Kearny, N.J. Carmine Galasso photo
PSE&G’s ambitious plan to build 10 new solar farms on closed landfills and former industrial sites across the state is generating mixed reaction — praise from the environmental community, concerns about potential costs to ratepayers, and worries that the projects could depress the price of solar credits that some homeowners rely on to pay off their rooftop solar arrays.

Record staff writer James M. O'Neill reports:

The $275 million plan by the Public Service Electric and Gas Co. would add 100 megawatts of solar power to the grid by 2021, enough to serve about 16,000 homes. The projects, part of PSE&G’s Solar 4 All program, come on the heels of eight completed solar farms, including one at the old Hackensack Gas Works site in Hackensack, and one nearly finished facility, at similar sites.

Environmentalists praise the move to add solar farms, not only because the program will add more renewable energy to the grid, but also because it will use old landfills and industrial brownfields instead of farmland or undeveloped land, which are often where solar farms get built in other states.

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“Brownfields and landfill sites are ideal locations for solar,” said Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey. “Ultimately, we need to be even more aggressive because as battery storage technology evolves and solar technology improves, we should see an even more rapid expansion of solar.”

But others raise concerns about the project.

Among them is Stefanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, which represents utility customers. Companies in New Jersey that produce power are unregulated, so they must compete in the market and take on the risk of building a power plant or solar farm in the hope they can recoup the costs and turn a profit. But like other companies that deliver electricity to customers, PSE&G is regulated, and its application to build the new solar farms, filed with the state Board of Public Utilities, includes a guaranteed profit of more than 10 percent. That’s an expense that will get passed on in higher utility fees to ratepayers — a market advantage PSE&G would have over unregulated companies investing in solar projects.

“We want more solar — more solar is good,” Brand said. “But what’s the right way to pay for it? PSE&G is asking ratepayers to assume the risk for this solar generation. Others are developing solar through unregulated subsidiaries. Why is PSE&G coming to ratepayers to take on risk?”

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