PowerLight, a global provider of large-scale solar-power systems, bills itself as the nation’s largest solar electric system integrator. It is based in California, and in Trenton it took over the 8,500 square-foot first floor in the Trenton Makes Technology Building, formerly the old infirmary building of Roebling Mill.
The company designs, manufactures and builds large-scale solar plants for commercial and government clients worldwide. It has put in 12 megawatts of solar power in New Jersey to date and by the end of this year will have installed 100 megawatts of solar power plants worldwide.
Thomas Leyden, vice president of the east coast division, has seen 800 percent growth in the industry over the last five years. “Prices have come down. Infrastructure has been built. There are 100 solar companies in New Jersey, which has been the second largest solar market in the country.”
The alternative energy business is getting so hot that billionaire Ted Turner has gotten into the act with a three-year-old firm, DT Solar. Late last month Turner presided over the announcement of the installation of a 1,400 kilowatt, 8,000-panel solar-energy system at a warehouse in South Plainfield, to be installed in partnership with a Branchburg-based firm, Dome-Tech Solar.
And a Princeton-based firm, Energy PhotoVoltaics, is tripling in size on Bakers Basin Road and in Robbinsville (see Life in the Fast Lane, page 51).
By law, New Jersey must aim for 20 percent of the energy to be renewable by 2020. “National companies have come in, and investments have been made,” says Leyden.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that rebate money, which pays 50 percent of installation costs up front, is running out. The state is switching from a rebate program to a renewable energy credit program, which lets solar power users earn credits that can be sold on the commodities markets. New contracts are at a standstill. “With $90 million, the state is funding projects that have already been approved over the last year, but those were sold last year,” says Leyden. “We need to get to the next level.”
The renewable energy credit (REC) portfolio is scheduled to ramp up over the next 20 years. Now, says Leyden, the energy credits need to be phased out.
All the utilities are required to install solar energy. Either they must put it in themselves, pay a high penalty, or buy credits from other generators.
“Through the trading system the customers register the RECs and we aggregate them,” says Leyden. “After we sell them to the energy generators, the utilities, they retire the RECs, having met their obligation.”
The REC buying and selling machinery is in place. Clean Power Markets has the contract for managing the web-based program for brokering the RECs; it tracks generators, buyers, aggregators, and brokers. Brokers of RECs include Manhattan-based Evolution Markets, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan. PowerLight is an aggregator of RECs; it buys RECs from its clients, combines them, and sells them to an energy company. That’s the plan, but because the plan has yet to be implemented, new solar energy contracts in New Jersey are few and far between. “Because the rebate program is faltering at the moment, and the renewable energy credit program is in transition, we and other companies are investing elsewhere,” says Leyden.
The son of a high school principal on Long Island, Leyden majored in psychology at Princeton University, Class of 1977. His two brothers and two sisters are in the fields of real estate, construction, sales, and medical information. He and his wife Connie, a freelance editor who has worked with such novelists as Tom Clancy, live in Chesterfield, and he serves on the planning board there. Their daughter attends Lawrenceville School. Leyden is the current president of a regional solar energy trade group, and he took a prominent role in Princeton’s Habitat for Humanity project.
Leyden worked in real estate in Annapolis, Maryland, and in 1980 he started a solar business there, Maryland Energy Systems. From 1993 to 1994 he worked with Zoltan Kiss, founder of Energy Photovoltaic Systems, the thin-film-PV solar module manufacturer on Bakers Basin Road that just announced its expansion. From 1995 to 2000 Leyden was vice president of marketing for WorldWater Corporation, the publicly traded, photo-voltaic powered pumping manufacturer and systems integrator at Pennington Business Park. WorldWater started out doing international projects but has expanded to also take on domestic projects.
PowerLight was founded in 1991 in an 800-square-foot garage in Berkeley, California, incorporated in 1995, and now has 150 employees. The New Jersey office has also grown rapidly, starting with two in the Lenox facility and coming out with five, and now the company has eight staff members.
PowerLight has a 10 megawatt system in Germany, an 11 megawatt system in Portugal, and it does most of the large scale commercial systems in the United States, including several for Johnson & Johnson. For instance, it designed, built, and installed a 505 kilowatt ground-mounted tracking system, which follows the sun, in Skillman on Grandview Road.
A slightly smaller 500 kilowatt system at Janssen Pharmaceutica, completed four years ago, has saved the energy equivalent to removing 1,000 cars from the road. With 42,000 square feet of solar panels, it generates enough electricity during the daytime to power over 600 homes.
New Jersey customers also include the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs at Fort Dix, and Monmouth University (455 kilowatts of rooftop systems, which is the largest deployment of solar energy at a university east of the Mississippi). Powerlight received the New Jersey Clean Energy Program’s 2006 award as Energy Market Innovator of the year.
“Large, for us, is 500 kilowatts to 10 megawatts. No one comes even close to the total capacity of PowerLight,” says Leyden. He opened the east coast office of PowerLight from his home, then moved it to shared office space on Princeton Pike, and last year moved to the Roebling mill building, where, as the first tenant, it set up shop in the space that used to be the infirmary. With eight employees, he intends to keep growing.
“We wanted to be part of urban renewal in Trenton,” says Leyden. He has not tried to qualify for any sales tax reduction that comes with being in an Urban Enterprise Zone (“it has no value to us.”) What does have value is the proximity to the Board of Public Utilities and the Capitol buildings. “We are always testifying about policies,” he says. “I take the train to Washington and New York all the time.”
Leyden has high praise for his landlord, Brian Gill-Price (see story on ProServices Corp., page 43). Gill-Price, he says, has done a good job in restoring the building and “has done it all for the right reasons.” Says Leyden: “We are in a building that was part of history, and we are creating a new chapter in that history.”
PowerLight Corp., 700 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton 08611; 609-964-8900; fax, 609-964-8924. www.powerlight.com