The nation’s leading market for solar energy is getting more public help.
New Jersey will require electricity companies to get a greater share of their power from the sun to sustain its solar market.
Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill Monday expanding the minimum percentage of solar required in the portfolios of utilities from 0.5 to 2.2 percent by 2014 and 4.2 percent by 2028.
The move is expected to help local solar-installation businesses, which have seen fewer residential customers. Egg Harbor Township firm Paramount Solar LLC likely will benefit from the law, but not immediately, owner Joe McGeoch said.
“In the short term I don’t see anything developing from it. It might boost sales slightly,” he said.
His business opened in 2005 and saw boom years in 2008 and 2009, when New Jersey offered rebates to customers who installed solar panels. Those state incentives ended in 2010.
Customers who install solar panels also get credits for the energy they produce that they can then sell on the open market. Power producers buy these credits to help meet their government-mandated renewable-power goals.
New Jersey saw a glut of solar installations in 2009, which drove down the price of the credits from a high of $600 per megawatt hour to a low of less than $100.
New Jersey Board of Public Utilities spokesman Gregory Reinert said the rebates were allowed to expire because the solar industry was becoming more self-sufficient.
“The (renewable energy credits) and the federal tax credits were more than enough to keep the market moving,” he said.
New Jersey remains the nation’s largest market for solar with 174 megawatts installed in the first quarter this year, according to the trade group Solar Energy Industries Association. The vast majority of it is from large-scale commercial and utility projects.
New Jersey is on pace to shatter last year’s record 313 megawatts of installed solar.
“It keeps New Jersey in the forefront and keeps the energy market growing,” association spokeswoman Katie Bolcar-Rever said.
As the cash value of the solar credits dwindled, so did residential demand for solar panels, said McGeoch, 32, of Mays Landing.
Today when you call some solar-company start-ups in Atlantic and Cape May counties, you reach a disconnected number.
“There are solar technicians who are in search of work right now,” McGeoch said. “People are out of work. It has definitely declined over the past few years. Fewer companies, too.”
His business now works with third-party financing companies that help homeowners defray the cost of installing the solar panels. In exchange, the homeowners surrender their solar credits to the financiers.
“New Jersey is a leasing market right now. So it’s nothing out of pocket for people,” he said. “They surrender the (credits) and let the bigger companies use them. That’s how 85 percent of the population is doing it.”
That gives homeowners with little equity in their houses or poor credit scores a chance to install solar at little or no cost, he said.
The new law also gives incentives to develop solar on brownfields and landfills.
And it addresses a longtime obstacle for large-scale solar developers who had been forced to use low-capacity transmission lines in southern New Jersey. Under the law, these developers will be able to use high-voltage transmission lines, which in turn will free up capacity for homeowners and businesses to sell their power to the grid, Atlantic City Electric spokeswoman Lendel Jones said.
“We were pleased with the outcome of the legislation. We needed a way to give developers an option,” Jones said.
Environmental groups such as the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club praised Christie’s signing of the bill. Spokesman Jeff Tittel said Christie was solving a problem he helped create when he scaled back the state’s lofty renewable-energy goals from 30 percent to 22 percent by 2021 and withdrew the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
“You can’t have a New Jersey comeback without the 5,000 jobs that solar created,” Tittel said.
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