The East Coast’s Real Sunshine State: New Jersey
February 12, 2014
When most people think about solar power, New Jersey doesn’t immediately come to mind. They might think of thousands of photovoltaic panels sprawling across barren stretches Southwestern desert. Solar, many people suppose, thrives not in New Jersey but where New Jersey goes on vacation.
“We have developed a great partnership with PPL, upholding the IBEW Code of Excellence,” says Wilkes-Barre Local 1319 Business Manager Hank Stanski, who teamed up with Third District International Representative Rich Redmond and Business Manager Richard Muttik of Collegeville Local 126 to negotiate the agreements.
But an aggressive policy encouraging the growth of commercial and residential rooftop solar has made New Jersey one of the leaders in American solar power, behind only California and Arizona in total installed capacity and number of installations, and it has it in a way that has benefited working families.
“Solar power has been a godsend,” said Patrick Delle Cava, business manager of Paterson Local 102. “We would have been dying on the vine these last couple of years without it.”
Since former Gov. John Corzine launched the solar push more than a decade ago, New Jersey has gone from 3 megawatts of installed capacity to more than 1,100 megawatts at the beginning of this year.
While nationally, large-scale projects make up about 80 percent of new construction, New Jersey solar development has been concentrated in medium sized, 5-15 megawatt projects, which fall into a sweet spot for IBEW signatory contractors.
“Commercial projects have put a lot of members to work over the last six years,” said Guy Peterson, business manager of Asbury Park Local 400. “New Jersey has done an excellent job making sure those projects are the heart of the renewable development.”
Projects like the 1-megawatt photovoltaic system members of Local 400 put up at the Verizon East Coast Data Center in Freehold. Peterson said the project kept 35 journeymen and apprentices working for more than seven weeks. As temperatures warm up, he expects several more solar projects, the largest almost seven megawatts, to break ground this spring.
Local 400’s success at winning the contracts comes from investing in training for the entire membership, Peterson said and not just on wiring. More than 180 have been certified to drive the off-road forklifts often used in solar installation.
In Northern New Jersey, Delle Cava said the IBEW’s success also required a significant investment of time, because many of the solar projects involved out-of-state, even foreign developers, unfamiliar with local laws. Members of Local 102 were often lobbying in Trenton, testifying at community zoning boards and collaborating with developers long before picking up any tools.
“One 10-megawatt installation probably took 300 hours of work from me and the business representatives, but when 200 guys are working for 5 months, it is obviously worth the effort,” Delle Cava said.
The key to the solar growth has been high quotas for renewable energy and some of the most generous rules in the country on recovering installation costs and selling excess power into the grid.
The state’s renewable portfolio standard has required utilities to source 22.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.
To reach that number, utilities allow residential and commercial solar arrays of any size to send power back out into the grid, effectively spinning their meters backwards. The result is that utilities pay more for this power than any other, and many states either put limits on the size or the number of so-called “behind the meter systems.” In New Jersey, the result of the incentives has been a near doubling of capacity every year for close to a decade.
New Jersey has also been notable for a bipartisan commitment to connect green jobs with decent wages. When the market that sets the rates utilities pay to solar array owners crashed in 2011, Gov. Chris Christie and the majority-Democrat legislature quickly reformed the market rules.
“This law is vital to the continued success of the state’s solar market and in ensuring that the good-paying construction and installation jobs created by the solar industry stay in New Jersey,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, when the reform was signed into law. “That is what this measure is really about – supporting quality, good-paying jobs for New Jersey’s workers.”
Delle Cava said it was by being active in the creation of environmental laws that everyone has benefited.
“Across the state, the IBEW membership spoke up loudly when this law was written to make sure clean energy translated into good jobs. In too many places that hasn’t happened, and it creates a lot of unnecessary friction,” said Delle Cava. “In New Jersey we’ve really shown a different way is possible.”