Wednesday, February 8, 2012

California Solar Strikes Gold in N.J.

It may be better known for smokestack industries, but New Jersey is fast becoming a green haven for a number of Sacramento-grown solar companies.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks last week at the Recurrent Energy solar facility in Elk Grov

Lured by some of the most attractive incentives in the solar industry, SPI Solar of Roseville and Premier Power Renewable Energy of El Dorado Hills have lined up a significant amount of work in the Garden State.

SolarCity and SunRun, two other large California solar companies with a big presence in Sacramento, have made huge inroads in New Jersey's residential solar market.

Despite having far fewer sunny days, the Garden State has emerged as the nation's second largest solar market behind California. A big part of the reason: a state program under which companies that install solar systems can cash in by selling credits to utilities.

Financing for solar projects in New Jersey has slowed lately, the result, experts say, of a glut. But the industry continues to churn out new solar installments at relatively high levels.

"It definitely was a boom market, but there's still a fairly sizable pipeline that is being built out," said Shayle Kann, managing director of solar research at Boston-based GTM Research.

According to GTM and the Solar Energy Industries Association, businesses, residents and utilities in New Jersey have installed enough solar projects to generate more than 400 megawatts of electricity, or roughly 2 percent of the state's electricity use.

New Jersey – whose solar industry has grown from fewer than a dozen projects a decade ago to more than 11,000 today – has placed itself on a fast track by focusing on a key niche in the industry: commercial solar projects.

Unlike some of the vast, utility-scale solar farms being developed in remote parts of California's Mojave Desert, many of these industrial projects are being built in New Jersey's urban core and are providing energy directly to the big factories and warehouses on which they are built.

New Jersey now boasts some of the biggest rooftop commercial solar projects in the country.

Roseville's SPI Solar is designing and building several of those projects as part of a three-year pact with New Jersey solar developer KDC Solar LLC that could generate at least $600 million in work throughout the state for the two companies.

The 5-megawatt system at White Rose Inc.'s food distribution warehouse in Carteret, N.J., employs more than 22,000 solar panels and covers a massive area more than 75,000 square feet, or roughly two-thirds of the size of the Westfield Galleria in Roseville, according to Alan Epstein, KDC's president.

More than 200 construction workers were hired for the job.

SPI, which handled the engineering and construction work on the White Rose project for KDC and partner NuGen Capital Management LLC of Rhode Island, said that system will eventually be dwarfed by a 9.7-megawatt, ground-mounted system that SPI and KDC plan to build for a major pharmaceutical company in New Jersey.

"Clearly, this is a very important market for SPI's future," said Steve Kircher, CEO of the Roseville firm.

Kircher and Epstein said the projects couldn't have gotten off the ground without the help of New Jersey's popular solar financing program, which was created by the state to promote investment in solar projects.

Dubbed the Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, or SRECs, the program provides a tradable credit to businesses for every 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity that a solar system produces.

The prices for the credits are set by trading on an open market. New Jersey electric utilities, in turn, are required to purchase a certain amount of these credits to comply with the state's renewable-energy standards.

Earlier this summer, the credits were trading for about $600 each, before dropping to the $200 range in recent months due to a glut of new solar projects coming online.

Locally based Premier Power Renewable Energy credited New Jersey's SREC program with offsetting some of the cost of developing a 300-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system on a medical building in Lakewood N.J.

Premier, working for developer Soar Energy Partners LLC, said the 2010 project qualified for roughly $190,000 a year in SREC revenues for Soar.

"It's all about the renewable energy credits. That's what's driving the markets," said Ed Murray, CEO of Aztec Solar Inc., a Rancho Cordova-based solar design firm.

California also has a solar credit program, but it's geared toward large-scale solar farms that produce power for utilities, not smaller commercial projects.

Gov. Jerry Brown has called for more development of solar systems on the rooftops of warehouses, schools, parking lots and other commercial buildings. It's part of his proposal to develop 12 gigawatts of power from local clean energy sources by 2020, enough to supply 3 million homes.

But the state has yet to roll out details on how this plan will be accomplished and how the state would help finance it.

In the meantime, some East Coast companies don't like the idea of California firms cashing in on New Jersey's solar boom.

Jared Haines, president of Mercury Solar Systems Inc., said he thinks many of the West Coast newcomers are undercutting the more established New Jersey and other East Coast solar providers on large commercial projects, resulting in the loss of local jobs.

"To make inroads ... they dropped market prices and brought many of their own employees," said Haines, whose New York-based company has three offices in New Jersey. "It's hurt New Jersey companies."


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