BPU hearing examines clean energy funding issues

BORDENTOWN – The issue of clean energy – and specifically how to pay for its development – was brought into focus a bit during a hearing today held by the Board of Public Utilities.

As part of the governor’s Energy Master Plan, a subcommittee – whose report led up to this hearing being scheduled at the Rutgers Eco-Complex here – found, among other things, that multiple layers of bureaucracy contribute to escalating costs, and it encouraged establishment of a “single, third-party contracting entity.’’

The group also concluded that revolving loan funds – problematic because they require a large up-front pool of money – don’t necessarily reduce the need for other incentives.

The subcommittee also did not reach a consensus on whether the state should set a floor price to help deal with the problem of the falling prices of solar renewable energy certificates. One of the group’s concerns was that establishing a “floor’’ price is difficult and puts more risk on the ratepayers.

In general, the subcommittee urged the continued transition to a market-based approach to fund and develop clean energy.

To a degree, it was the very success of New Jersey’s subsidized development of solar energy that helped lead to the decline in value of the SRECs.

Former BPU president Scott Weiner, however, urged the assembly of approximately 100 people to think of New Jersey’s solar energy program as an overall success.

The societal benefits, jobs retained or created, and the move toward energy efficiency show that the program, despite its problems, has been worth the effort, he said.

“Where we are today should be a cause of celebration,’’ Weiner said, adding that the state and the industry have proven there is a market for solar energy.

Scott Schultz of Advanced Solar Products in Flemington seconded that opinion. Despite the boom and bust cycle of the SREC values and concern over subsidy vs. market-based approaches, the solar energy effort in New Jersey created jobs, mitigated job losses and allowed contractors to keep people on their payrolls as energy-efficiency programs progress.

However, he said New Jersey lost roughly 30 to 40 percent of solar installers when the residential program suffered.

Colleague Lyle Rawlings of Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy in Hopewell said an as-yet unreleased study of seven other states with SREC programs that crashed raises the fear that New Jersey’s SREC program is headed for a similar fate.

SREC costs are dropping dramatically and are expected to continue that trend into next year, he said.

And yet with that pain has come progress. He referenced another unreleased study that found 100,000 solar energy jobs created nationally, with New Jersey accounting for 17 percent of that total.

All of the witnesses, in touting the wins of job creation and energy efficiency, as well as the losses of SREC values falling and uncertainty about how to finance the clean energy effort moving forward, said the state has to move toward long-term stability somehow.

Subcommittee chairman Steven Goldenberg reminded everyone that there is a long way to go. “There’s so much infrastructure work that needs to be done in this state,’’ he said, encouraging the administration to resolve the bureaucratic issues in which the clean energy movement has become mired.

It has been an economic development, job creation avenue in the past, and can be again, witnesses said.

Jeff Tittel of the N.J. Sierra Club expressed support for the societal benefits charge, the part of a ratepayer’s bill that helps fund clean, renewable energy development.

“The societal benefits charge has been a cost-effective program,’’ he said, “considering the outcomes.’’

He said that the SBC has lured private investment, and helped to promote offshore wind, solar panels, combined heat and power, energy-efficient furnaces, and more.

He said that studies show that for every dollar invested, about $16 are saved.

“The Energy Master Plan needs to embrace the future,’’ he said. BPU hearing examines clean energy funding issues