Beneath a blazing sun, Dan Potkay's crew fastened the final solar panels to the roof of a Brigantine dental office. The patchwork of 272 panels totals 49 kilowatts - enough to power 75 percent of the dental business and a neighboring arcade and save the owner about $7,100 per year, he said.
Potkay, general manager of Brite Idea Energy, a solar installation company in Egg Harbor Township, has seen work increase four-fold over the past two years, particularly on the commercial side. One driving factor: a more affordable price.
"The cost has come down on the solar modules. A 10-kilowatt system for us two years ago was $80,000," Potkay said of an average residential system his firm installs. "Today, it's a little bit over $50,000."
The falling price - aided by Chinese manufacturers reducing costs - comes as state regulators prepare to reinstate rebates for new residential systems as soon as Sept. 1. A round of rebates in May overwhelmed the New Jersey Office of Clean Energy, which saw more than 1,100 applications trying to claim $6 million. To patch a state budget deficit, Gov. Chris Christie reduced more than half of the $58 million that was slated to go to rebates this year.
The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities plans to offer a rebate of 75 cents per watt for residential systems up to 7.5 kilowatts. A public or nonprofit entity doing a solar project can get the same rebate. Commercial projects are no longer eligible.
As of June 30, there have been 6,281 solar projects in the state collecting almost $330 million in rebates, according to the BPU. That is equivalent to about 180 megawatts of electricity - enough to power more than 36,160 homes in a cloud-prone state such as New Jersey.
In southern New Jersey, Atlantic City Electric analyzes where new systems can be tied into the power grid so that "any connections will not interfere with ensuring reliability to our customers," spokeswoman Sandra May said.
The Mays Landing-based utility also has a solar-financing program, which was approved by the BPU last year. The utility enters into contracts with solar-system owners to purchase their energy credits, also known as Solar Renewable Energy Certificates. Eleven applicants have signed on so far.
With rebate funding from the state expected to be phased out completely, the credits are another way for homeowners and commercial property owners to recoup money from installing the pricey solar panels. The credits - for a price set on the open market - can be bought by electricity suppliers who are required to purchase them under the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard, which says that 22.5 percent of the electricity those suppliers sell must come from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind by 2021.
Fines are imposed if an electricity supplier does not comply.
The credits have been trading at an average $578, more than double the price two years ago. Since the credits allow solar-system owners to make an added profit from their panels, it is an appealing incentive for building them in New Jersey, which is second only to California in terms of solar-generating capacity in the country.
"We're really lucky to be in New Jersey and in a state that likes to be real aggressive in its policies," said Mitchell Trellis, president of Cherry Hill-based NFI's new solar division.
National Freight Inc., known more as a transportation and warehousing company, put a 1.32-megawatt system on its Cherry Hill headquarters - equal to about 6,150 solar panels. NFI is one of three companies that the Vineland Municipal Electric Utility has contracted to build solar energy fields that will produce about 12 megawatts of electricity.
Jordan Brown, managing member of NFI Solar, said a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in the overall cost of solar panels coupled with the state's credit program makes commercial solar installation attractive.
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't," said Brown, who would eventually like to take the business nationwide.
But Lyle Rawlings, president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, does not see viability in the current credit system and wants it reformed. He said the credits should be paying out a "modest rate of return" as originally set up.
The credits should be trading back down to about $260, he said, and it would be less volatile if solar-system owners had long-term contracts with an energy supplier at a fixed price.
"This is a conversation for the legislator and the BPU to address. We think there's a shared dedication to lowering this cost," Rawlings said.
Utility ratepayers have a reason to be concerned as well, he added: If energy suppliers must continue to pay more for credits, they can pass those costs along in the price of electricity and that can show up as higher rates on customers' bills.
"As a solar leader, we are the ones who have to be responsible for the future of the industry," Rawlings said. "We need tools for selling solar that are simple and secure."
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How much solar?
United States: Ranks fourth in the world behind Germany, Spain and Japan for total solar capacity. America has more than 2,000 megawatts of solar power and technologies, enough to serve more than 350,000 homes.
New Jersey: Ranks second in the nation behind California with solar capacity of 128 megawatts. The Golden State has 1,102.
Atlantic City Electric: The utility says it has 1,430 solar-panel systems in its service territory - 1,212 are residential and 218 are commercial. Together, they produce more than 28 megawatts.
Source: Solar Energy Industries Association