New Jersey solar installers seek “Endless Summer” at ratepayer expense

Michael Giberson

A crisis is coming for the New Jersey solar power installation industry. Stringent solar power purchase requirements imposed on electric utilities (i.e. on electric utility ratepayers) has turned the state into the nation’s second largest for solar power capacity installed, behind only sunny California.

But now that installed capacity is sufficient to meet current requirements, the installation business is expected to drop way off.  (The purchase requirements actually increase each year through 2021, but the rate of growth is slowing.) That expected drop off has lobbyists for both the solar power industry and unionized solar installers descending on the state capital, pleading for imposition of still higher purchase requirements on electric power consumers. The rallying cry has been to “save the jobs” created by the solar power purchase mandate.

Here is one report, “NJ looking to rescue ailing solar industry“:

New Jersey has long been known as the Garden State, but during the last five years, it could have easily been known as the Solar State from all the sunlight-absorbing panels that have cropped up nearly everywhere.

They’re on the roofs of schools, churches, municipal buildings and sewage treatment plants. They’re in farm fields and attached to utility poles. Even one of New Jersey’s trademark diners recently went green and installed panels.

But all is not well with New Jersey’s once-thriving solar industry, which has grown so big, so fast, that it’s now in danger of collapsing on top of itself.

The industry’s future could hinge on the work of the state Legislature during the next several months as lawmakers look to craft a bailout bill that rescues the solar market and the thousands of jobs it created.

A bailout bill was approved by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on Thursday, but Bill S 1925’s chances of becoming law are far from certain as it relies largely on making power companies buy more electricity from solar generators.

Critics warn that doing so could mean higher bills for the state’s ratepayers. Supporters say without government help the entire industry will likely collapse.

“We have a crisis, and the crisis is this: If the market stays the way it is, there will be no new projects in the future, and the ones out there now will fail,” Sen. Robert Smith, D-17th of Piscataway, said Thursday at the onset of the lengthy hearing on the bill, which drew hundreds to the Statehouse, many of them union members who work in the industry.

At issue is the market for the electricity that solar panels produce, which has crashed during the last year because of an oversupply of solar development.

Under state law, utilities must obtain part of their electricity from solar generation. To do so, most must buy solar renewable energy credits, or SRECs, from solar panel owners.

The market for the credits originally boomed and helped New Jersey become the nation’s second-largest solar power producer behind California. All that development caused a glut in the market that has seen SREC prices decline from $650 or more in 2010 to less than $100 at times this year.

“We’ve become a victim of our own success,” Smith said. “We’ve had so much solar built in New Jersey that the market for SRECs has crashed.”

Historical SREC values are charted at the Flett Exchange.

The crash in the value of an SREC has cut into revenues projected for private businesses and public schools that have had solar panels installed. Banks have become less willing to loan for solar projects as subsidy revenues have dropped off.

A bill circulating to bail out the industry would both increase the mandated purchases, cap the size of solar projects built, and require projects gain approval from state regulators before they are built. The bill has failed, or at least stalled, on the issue of regulator review – the industry wants all existing projects exempted from regulatory review while the Governor’s office and some others insisted on no exemption.

All hope is not lost for the industry, even should the legislature fail to raise the cost imposed on ratepayers in order to bail out the New Jersey solar industry. The chairman of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has said if legislators don’t act then the BPU might simply impose a higher solar mandate on its own authority.

BACKGROUND: For an extended assessment of solar power incentives in state Renewable Portfolio Standards see Ryan Wiser, Galen Barbose, and Edward Holt, “Supporting Solar Power in Renewable Portfolio Standards: Experience from the United States,” Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley CA, October 2010. LBNL-3984E.

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5 thoughts on “New Jersey solar installers seek “Endless Summer” at ratepayer expense

  1. The World Goes Solar. Japan’s FiT in July is among the highest in the world. It’s clear that Japan’s FiT will shake the solar market. Now, US has the same options. New solar technology will show in Japan. This is it!
    As you know, earthquake in japan is happening frequently. Floating solar panels installation is one of the best solutions for power crisis in Japan. So you have to reduce the vibration to install Floating solar panels. Because, it makes many kinds of problems! The vibrations caused by wind, waves and external forces. New Floating Body Stabilizer for Floating solar panels installation has been created in South Korea. The Floating Body Stabilizers generate drag force immediately when Floating solar panels are being rolled and pitched on the water. Recently, this Floating Body Stabilizers using to reduce the Vibration of Floating Solar Panels in South Korea. You can see New Floating Body Stabilizer videos in YouTube. http://youtu.be/O2oys_YHhCc, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA_xFp5ktbU&feature=youtu.be.

  2. It is ironic that the SREC mechanism was specifically designed by its proponents at the PUC to be a market driven mechanism. The price of the subsidy for solar power as embodied in the SREC price would fluctate each year in order to clear the market at that year’s legal requirement for solar purchases. If developers built more solar projects than mandated by the state legislature, the SREC was designed to fall to $0 and reduce the state subsidy to install excess solar facilites. If not enough solar facilities were installed, the SREC price naturally rises in the underfilled market to a regulatory cap price. ( $600+ per MWh or roughly 15-20 times the price of current non-solar power… )

    Thus this is a perfect example of an originally well designed system failing due to regulatory capture, rent-seeking, and lobbying by industry. Solar developers are growing exceedingly fast in NJ. Even with no legal changes, solar requirements increase rapidly each year and the industry will still grow. It will just not grow at an exponential rate and with such ridiculous margins as in the last few years. There is a reason why NJ has developed such a large solar industry so fast. It granted above market returns with no risk. These abnormally large profits were paid for by the state’s residents.

    The original law laid out an admirable goal to increase the state renewable generation. This generation provides externalities for which the state granted a generous subsidy. This laudable goal has been achieved and its targets have been met. No further changes are necessary.

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