The news that New Jersey has the most solar energy systems per capita might surprise residents of the Golden State. True, California still leads the nation in the total number of solar energy installations, but when you divide installation dollars by population, New Jersey wins.
What is driving New Jersey’s success? And what can California and other states learn from New Jersey’s push to go solar?
Historically, New Jersey is better known for pollution than conservation. With more industrial clean-up sites than any other state in the nation, something had to change.
A Clear Plan to Cut Pollution
In April of 2006, then Governor Jon S. Corzine pushed forward legislation that allowed New Jersey to join a global coalition, the International Carbon Action Partnership, to fight global warming.
New Jersey became the third state in the nation to mandate greenhouse gas reduction. As part of the state’s Energy Master Plan, New Jersey must return greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a reduction of about 20 percent.
The state’s four public utilities are also mandated to provide 20 percent of their power using renewable energy by 2020. At the time, these goals were the most ambitious in the nation. To help utilities reach those goals, the state offered a rebate program for residential solar panel energy system installations.
In addition, utilities are allowed to purchase excess energy generated by residential systems to help meet mandated requirements. Subsequently, the costs of solar in New Jersey are incredibly low for homeowners.
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New Jersey’s solar rebate “buy back” programs are among the most generous of any state in the nation. All four of New Jersey’s public utilities offer financing programs for customers who install solar energy systems as well.
A Focus on Low-Cost Residential Solar Installation
From the start, New Jersey’s programs emphasized the use of solar energy for residential and commercial use, and here is where the state’s development of solar energy diverged from California’s.
Perhaps more than any other state, California has pushed for the creation of large-scale solar energy utilities, pursuing a belief that, considering the state’s wide-open, sunny spaces, establishing solar utilities was the best option for promoting renewable energy.
California’s policy of promoting utility-scale projects hit two unexpected snags. First, big solar farms needed to be connected with the state’s electrical grid, and that means building power stations and high-voltage power transmission wires through existing neighborhoods. Residents of these neighborhoods have protested these installations with a “not in my backyard” response.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, large-scale solar farms have not yet become an economically feasible alternative to conventional utilities. Why? China dominates the manufacturing of the photovoltaics used in solar farms. U.S. solar makers simply cannot compete with their prices.
Further, distributed generation adds more jobs compared to the number created through large-scale projects, an important distinction. Job creation spurs the economy, which helps homeowners afford home improvements like residential solar energy installations.
The good news for Californians is that the Golden State’s residential incentive programs remain as robust as ever.