Last night, I ran out for a quick dinner with my husband and got to talking to the bartender at one of our local restaurants here in north New Jersey. Turns out that's his second job: he works during the daytime as a solar panel installer.
As I've reported several times -- and you wouldn't know it from the 3 to 5 inches of rain we've had here in the past 36 hours -- New Jersey is a big state when it comes to solar technology. According to new figures released this week by the Solar Energy Industries Association, New Jersey was second only to California for photovoltaic installations in 2010. Last year, there were 878 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity and 78 megawatts of concentrating solar power installed across the United States, which is enough to generate electricity for 200,000 homes. That was more than double the previous year.
I think the reasons solar has been so big in New Jersey are many, but two in particular stick out in my mind.
In that New Jersey county alone, there have been 19 projects completed on schools and government agencies, representing 3.1 megawatts of generating capacity. The projects were financed by a public-private collaboration, known as the Morris Model, between the Morris County Improvement Authority (MCIA) and Tioga Energy, which is a renewable Energy Service Provider for both public and commercial concerns. The technology was financed through $22.3 million in low-interest government bonds. Tioga operates and maintains the solar installations, which were completed by SunDurance Energy. The schools and government agencies are paying for the electricity through a 15-year power purchase agreement. That electricity, by the way, costs about 35 percent less than the rates charged by the local utility, so the savings are estimated at about $3.8 million.
Says Morris County Freeholder William Chegwidden, who is the liaison to the MCIA:
"Tioga Energy has been an invaluable partner, both in developing the unique financing structure of the Morris Model for the first time and in the smooth delivery of these projects. The success of the Morris Model establishes Morris County as the nation's foremost example of how the government and the private sector can work together to adopt ambitious renewable energy programs swiftly and affordably."
When I spoke with Tioga Energy Paul Detering in mid-December 2010, he said New Jersey was home to the best public-private collaborative projects helping fuel the solar movement. Other states where similar activity is heating up include Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
Tioga has been involved with many, many projects both "behind the meter" (where the organization installing the technology will use the power directly, such as the case with its relationship with BJ Wholesale Club) and "in front of the meter" (where it operates the systems and sells the power to a utility company). The linchpin for virtually every project, of course, remains financing. For the next several years, federal and state incentives will be instrumental in solar technology adoption, he says.
"I believe we will get to grid parity, where you don't need incentives. ... The whole point is to help the industry get the volume going to get the costs down. In certain markets, like Hawaii, there are pockets where we are getting close to grid parity." This will happen more over the next three years, Detering says.