PSE&G seeks to energize its solar-energy program

At the PSE&G Solar Farm groundbreaking Tuesday were Gov. Christie and utility CEO Ralph Izzo. One issue is whether ratepayers should subsidize the expanded solar program.
At the PSE&G Solar Farm groundbreaking Tuesday were Gov. Christie and utility CEO Ralph Izzo. One issue is whether ratepayers should subsidize the expanded solar program. (CHARLES SYKES / AP)
Posted: August 02, 2012

New Jersey's largest utility wants to more than double down its investment in solar power, with customers footing the bill.

Public Service Electric & Gas Co., which two years ago generated headlines with its ambitious program to install solar panels atop utility poles, on Tuesday proposed to install 136 megawatts more of photovoltaic systems over the next five years and to provide loans to residential and commercial customers to develop an additional 97 megawatts. The loans could be repaid by the debtors with the credits they would earn from generating solar.

But PSE&G's proposal to recover the program's $833 million cost through higher rates generated a wary response from the state's consumer advocate, who questioned whether ratepayers should subsidize the higher cost of the solar-generated electricity when New Jersey already has an oversupply of solar panels. New Jersey is second only to California in solar-generation capacity.

"You can bet we'll be taking a good look at it," said Stefanie Brand, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, the state's consumer advocate.

A utility spokesman estimated that the cost of the program would add 84 cents a year to a typical residential customer bill in the initial years.

Gary Weisman, president of New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, declined to comment on PSE&G's proposal, underscoring the sensitivity of the issue.

Ralph Izzo, president and chief executive of Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., the utility's parent company, announced the proposal to expand its Solar 4 All program during a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday at PSE&G's Hackensack Solar Farm, a 1.06-megawatt project built on a former industrial site.

Gov. Christie, who attended the ceremony, praised the project, though his commitment to renewable-power projects has been attacked by environmentalists.

"This administration pledges to continue moving forward with our commitment to develop renewable sources of energy," he said, "and with corporate partners like PSEG, New Jersey will continue to lead the way."

PSE&G's announcement comes a week after Christie signed legislation to stabilize the market for solar power in the next few years by requiring generators to buy more renewable-power credits, a way for customers to subsidize the higher cost of solar. The current price for the credits has plunged because so many projects were developed to take advantage of federal tax credits, now expiring.

The expanded Solar 4 All program, which requires approval by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, calls for $690 million to install 90 megawatts on landfills, brownfields. and other underutilized land; 20 MWs for solar systems on warehouse roofs; 25 MWs for systems on large parking lots; and 1 MW for projects that demonstrate emerging technologies.

PSE&G is also seeking $193 million to finance loans to develop 97 MW of projects.

The utility generated much fanfare in 2010 with its first Solar 4 All program, which budgeted $515 million to build 80 MW of solar power, half of it from modules mounted on PSE&G's utility poles that feed directly into the grid.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, New Jersey's 775 MW of installed solar capacity is second in the country behind California. Under legislation signed by Christie, that number is projected to triple by 2020.

Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@, or follow on Twitter @Maykuth.

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