Community solar aims to bring renewable energy to everyone

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Let’s say you want to have access to clean energy but you don’t have a house that has the right roof orientation. Or you don’t want to pay for an entire system up front. Or you’re a renter.

Community solar is an option.

“It allows all those people to collect together and essentially serve as owners of a facility and take that solar power from one facility and share it among multiple owners,” said Ken Sheehan, director of the Division of Clean Energy at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

“I’m still able to decide that I want to use clean energy and I can save money while doing so and kind of make a really positive step for my community,” said Melissa Kemp, northeast policy director for Cypress Creek Renewables.

In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law called the Clean Energy Act to increase the state’s renewable energy portfolio. The act requires the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to establish a community solar pilot program. That’s why energy stakeholders were present at a meeting to give their input.

“Special attention has to be made to make sure that everyone has access to the concept,” said Robert Wallace, president and CEO of Power52 Energy Solutions.

Wallace says community solar was designed to give low- and middle-income residents, or LMI, access to renewable energy.

“One of the things we did in Maryland is we wrote in that about a third of the policy has to be for LMI families. And in order for a project to qualify for LMI status, it had to serve at least 51 percent of capacity had to be for LMI households,” said Wallace.

His company trains vets and at-risk individuals on how to build clean energy projects and then helps them to find employment.

“Educating folks on what’s the benefits of renewable energy, why it’s important, access, credit,” Wallace said. “It creates a complete circle. Not only are they trained, but they have employment. If they have employment, they can build credit. If they can build credit, then they can buy a house or property and it breaks that cycle of poverty.”

He’s planning to bring this concept to New Jersey, and that’s why he wants to make sure New Jersey’s community solar project talks specifically about how to serve low- and middle-income residents.

One question is, where will these solar facilities go?

“In the last five to six years, New Jersey has had one of the most, or the most, restrictive siting policies in the northeast region in terms of where solar can go. It’s really only been allowed on the most impaired sites, so brownfields, landfills, roofs and parking lots. And that’s a really good thing. We support development on those sites,” Kemp said.

The question of changing possible land use was a hot topic.

“The first version says the site has to be within two miles of where the off tickers are. Well, most urban centers or underserved cities don’t have 12 acres of land available to put a site in. You don’t have new roofs that have a 20-year warranty to put a rooftop system in. So you’re severely limiting their access to clean energy by writing that provision,” Wallace said.

He said those are the little things that need to be addressed.

“One of the arguments that’s been raised so far today is to limit the distance to making sure you’re in the same electric company’s territory since they’re likely going to be the ones to run the wires from the solar panels to the load. There’s an idea of keeping them all within one unit,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan says they’re hoping to iron out those details and finalize the pilot program in the next six to nine months.