‘Renewable energy is here to stay,” says Rick Brooke, owner of Lambertville-based Jersey Solar, president of the MidAtlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, and the installer of Bill Wolfe’s residential system. “There’s going to be incredible growth in this industry — in manufacturing, engineering, and installation. For New Jersey it’s good for jobs.”
Solar installers like Brooke help their clients with the paperwork, which is good because the payback scheme is in flux. In July the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU), reacting to the burgeoning solar energy market, changed the payback system. It halved the up-front rebates, and effectively doubled the credits that the utility companies pay out over the long haul.
“Instead of a 60 percent rebate for installation costs, it will be 25 to 30 percent,” says Brooke. The solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) are paid out by the utility companies, and they will be worth more now. An example: the installation of a large 10kW system formerly entitled a homeowner to a $50,000 rebate upfront upon completion, for a net cost of $30,000, plus $2,500 per year in credits. After the change, the same system would get a $25,000 rebate and $5,000 per year in SRECs.
Solar customers will have more upfront costs, but they won’t be hit as hard if they take advantage of the utilities’ ability to offer solar installation loans. For instance, in April the NJBPU authorized PSE&G to offer up to $100 million in installation loans, sufficient to install solar electricity in 24,000 homes. Customers can pay back the loans with the solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) that they will get each year. Commercial clients can also take advantage of SRECs, but they don’t get rebates. However, they get a federal tax credit not available to residential customers — 30 percent over five years.
Brooke points out that the return on investment for solar renewable technology is better than the stock market for the past 50 years. Think of it as a savings bond, collecting interest of 9 to 12 percent over a 25-year life cycle.
A native of Lakewood, where his parents were teachers, Brooke got bitten by the alternative energy bug at Penn’s Wharton School (Class of 1974). He worked in California, training installers, and returned to his home state to start his firm in 1983. He has installed solar thermal technology (heating water for domestic use, most commonly in swimming pools) in from 500 to 600 homes, and has put solar electric arrays in about 200 homes and 25 small-to-medium sized commercial buildings.
Brooke worked with Wolfe on various home installations and on three church installations — his own, Hopewell Presbyterian, and Christ Congregation, and now the Unitarian church on Cherry Valley Road.
“What’s neat about Bill Wolfe’s house is that his geothermal heat pump does the heating and cooling. Only 10 percent of my customers have geothermal heat pumps, using the earth’s crust to heat and cool the home to heat and cool what the pump is taking out of the crust of the earth.”
The largest manufacturer of photovoltaic modules is Sharp Electronics, but Brooke buys his from SunPower, based in California, with a warehouse in Burlington and a systems division, formerly PowerLight corporation, on Clinton Avenue in Trenton. Chronar pioneered in this field in the 1980s, he points out, and a successor to that firm, EPV Solar, on Bear Tavern Road and at Exit 8A, is growing rapidly and using the follow-on technology, thin film.
Thin film modules are much cheaper than the solar arrays that are most commonly installed now but, at least for now, more modules are needed per project. Thin film works better in large commercial installations with unlimited space and in developing nations without government incentives.
Currently New Jersey has more than 3,100 solar installations, which puts it second only to California. But its financing system is unusual. The NJBPU touts New Jersey as “the first in the world to adopt the use of SRECs to help finance solar projects on a broad scale.”
Not everyone agrees, however, that SRECs are the way to go, and among the critics is Delores Phillips, former director of government relations at EPV Solar, now with her own firm, Sustainable Strategies.
“What the state needs to do is what Europe has done, move to the ‘feed-in’ tariff, an incentive paid for the amount of renewable energy produced, measured by kilowatts. That will bring the greatest amount of renewable energy to New Jersey and the United States,” says Phillips.
No matter how the money gets funneled to homeowners, the industry needs to grow. According to the state goal, in 15 years 20 percent of the power sold here must come from renewable sources. “We would have to grow this industry 40-fold to meet the goals we have to meet in the next 15 years,” says Brooke. “People are waking up, that oil and electricity will never be cheap again."
Jersey Solar, 408 Lambertville Hopewell Road, Lambertville 08530; 609-466-8362. Rick Brooke, owner . www.jerseysolar.com.