Up on a Rooftop: Aligning Solar Subsidies with Good Public Policy
Asbury Park Press, May 31, 2012
By Peter Kasabach (pkasabachnjfutureorg)
Over the past decade, solar power has become increasingly popular in New Jersey, for a host of good reasons. Solar energy is clean and renewable. It reduces our carbon footprint and our dependence on foreign sources of petroleum. Solar has the potential to meet an ever-larger percentage of New Jersey’s energy needs far into the future.
Although New Jersey currently generates only about 1 percent of its total electricity from solar power, the state ranks second only to California in total installed solar capacity, due largely to financial incentives designed to encourage solar development.
These incentives have come primarily in the form of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, or SRECs, which are publicly traded in monthly auctions among energy providers. After a rush of early activity, the market for SRECs has become saturated, leading to a sharp decline in their value—which is, in turn, slowing the installation of new solar panels. As a consequence, the Legislature is now considering a measure (S1925/A2966) that would stabilize the SREC market by accelerating the amount of electricity power providers must supply from solar systems.
As lawmakers in Trenton consider steps to reinvigorate the solar market, they should bear in mind that New Jersey has less developable land than almost any other state. This makes the effects of solar development on other land uses more pressing—and more visible—than in other states.
The bills under consideration in the Legislature do not address this critically important issue.
Instead of directing state subsidies in ways that would encourage solar development in appropriate locations, the legislation would continue subsidies to solar installations regardless of where they are sited (with two notable exceptions: landfills and brownfields).
Thus, a utility-scale solar installation on a pristine parcel of farmland or open space would enjoy the same subsidy as a set of rooftop panels on an industrial plant or a solar canopy covering a surface parking lot.
This makes no sense. According to a New Jersey Future analysis, the state could meet its solar goals for 2026 by placing solar panels on a total of 300 million square feet of rooftop space. In northern New Jersey alone, industrial space, which is typically single-story, totals 800 million square feet—more than enough to meet the entire state’s 2026 goals.
Rooftops have long been the most popular solar locations; they host 70 percent of today’s capacity and they offer many advantages to the rate-paying public, who subsidize solar installations through their utility bills. Large rooftop installations are cheaper than ground-mounted installations. Placing solar panels on rooftops does not require conversion of farmland, forests or other open space. There is no need for soil compaction during construction (which impairs the future value of farmland sites), nor is there any need for visual buffers or screening. For solar developers, rooftop installations rarely face the kind of local opposition or require the lengthy approval process typical of farmland or open-space installations. Rooftop installations offer significant economic benefits for property owners and businesses—and even more jobs for solar installers than installations on farmland or open space.
In addition to rooftops, surface parking lots offer another largely untapped host site for solar power. Although there are no statewide figures on surface parking lot capacity, think of how many solar canopies could be built atop the acres and acres of surface parking available in New Jersey. Canopied parking lots at William Paterson University in Wayne and Dow Jones’ corporate campus in South Brunswick are just two examples.
Since solar incentives drive the market, the Legislature should authorize the Board of Public Utilities to offer a sliding scale of solar incentives based on the preference of locations—and it should include rooftops and parking lots, perhaps ahead of landfills and brownfields, in the top tier of incentives. Installations on farmland or open space should be in a lower tier. The Legislature should also reduce conflicts at the local level regarding the location of ground-mounted solar by specifying that solar is not an “inherently beneficial use” on farmland and open space.
All New Jerseyans should support the aggressive development of renewable energy, and the Legislature should be commended for taking action to reinvigorate the market for solar energy certificates. But our lawmakers should take advantage of this opportunity to make a forceful statement that solar installations in this densely populated state are more appropriate to rooftops and parking lots than to farmland and open space.
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Peter Kasabach is executive director of New Jersey Future, a Trenton-based nonprofit that employs original research, analysis and advocacy to drive land-use policies that help revitalize cities and towns, protect natural lands and farms, provide more transportation choices beyond cars, expand access to safe and affordable neighborhoods and fuel a prosperous economy.