NJ BPU approves PSE&G's $446 million solar plan

David Porter, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- The board that regulates New Jersey's public utilities on Wednesday approved a $446 million solar energy plan proposed by the state's largest utility, adding several recommendations aimed at increasing oversight of the nearly half-billion-dollar programs.

The Board of Public Utilities unanimously approved Public Service Electric and Gas's nearly $200 million extension of its solar loan program that targets mainly residential and business customers. A $247 million extension of a program that will develop solar installations primarily on unused landfills and former industrial sites passed by a 3-1 margin.

Board commissioner Jeanne Fox, who cast the vote against the extension of the Solar 4 All program, raised concerns that ratepayers will be required to fund the program and that the new solar development could flood the market for solar energy credits that utilities buy from solar producers. Prices for the credits have fallen in recent years because more solar energy was being produced than the utilities needed.

Terry Moran, PSE&G's director of solar market strategy and development, said the company doesn't anticipate the Solar 4 All program having a negative impact on the solar credits market since it is reduced by more than two-thirds — from 136 megawatts in an original proposal to 45 megawatts — and will be rolled out over three years. A megawatt is capable of powering about 1,000 homes.

"We feel the reduced program will help alleviate that risk," Moran said.

The BPU on Wednesday modified PSE&G's proposal to require the company to furnish the board with monthly financial and progress reports; submit within 30 days its criteria for selecting projects and developers and give the board and ratepayer advocate 10 days to review contracts before they are executed. PSE&G's proposal had provided for yearly reporting.

The Office of Rate Counsel had sought more oversight as part of its objections to PSE&G's filing, and had criticized the plan for giving the company an unfair market advantage since it will recover its costs by increases to ratepayers.

"We're glad to see that they at least were considering our objections and that they made some modifications based on that," director Stefanie Brand said.

Board commissioners who approved both programs spoke of the need for New Jersey to have a robust solar energy market but cautioned that it must proceed carefully.

"It is extremely important to have increased transparency," Joseph Fiordaliso said. "As an agency we have to monitor that very closely."

While landfills and brownfields are seen as prime locations for solar installations, so far they account for a tiny handful of the more than 20,000 solar projects already installed in New Jersey. Five landfill solar projects are in operation and about two dozen more are either in development or being considered, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"We're gratified that the board has approved both of our filings," Moran said. "As we've said during the course of these proceedings, we felt both of these filings are consistent with and satisfy the state's energy master plan goals, so we're really looking forward to the process of implementing both of them."