The Christie administration appears resolved to steer large solar farms away from the state's disappearing agricultural land.
This week, the Board of Public Utilities approved just three of 57 applications to build grid-supply projects on farmland.
Grid-supply systems feed electricity directly from local solar arrays into the regional power infrastructure.
The state's solar market is in turmoil, with the price of solar credits dropping dramatically the last two years. Falling prices are blamed mostly on overbuilding of solar systems, stemming from state and federal incentives to developers.
Many in the industry worried that if the utilities board approved a significant number of farm projects, it would further swamp the market. The 57 projects would have generated roughly 640 megawatts, more than half of the solar capacity built in New Jersey in the last decade.
The three approved projects would create 12 megawatts of solar capacity on farmland. The projects are NJ Clean Energy Ventures, a 6.69-megawatt facility in Medford; a three-megawatt farm by OCI Solar in Holmdel; and Sun Perfect Solar's 2.3-megawatt system in Pittstown.
The state's new Energy Master Plan discourages building big grid-supply projects on farmland, instead trying to direct development to underused brownfields and landfills. That objective would be partly realized by a draft settlement between the BPU and Public Service Electric & Gas, which would give the utility the go-ahead to develop 42 megawatts of solar capacity on brownfields and landfills.
That proposal is expected to come up for a vote before the BPU this month, but its meeting Monday was packed with developers eager to see how the agency would act on their applications.
BPU staff said the three approved projects should be fully operational by June. Seven projects were deemed to have fallen short of requirements of a law promoting solar passed last summer. Twenty-six lacked necessary federal and state approvals. The agency deferred action on 21 projects.
The BPU's president, Bob Hanna, said the board's action was in line with the goals of a solar bill enacted last summer. "The general intent of the solar legislation is to move grid-supply projects from farmland to brownfields and landfills," Hanna said.
Fellow BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso agreed. "We have to protect the precious few farms that we have left in New Jersey," he said.
What happens to the remaining solar farm projects not approved by the BPU remains to be seen. Some solar developers said they expect some to seek approval under another provision of the solar law passed last summer, which allows the agency to approve 80 megawatts of grid-supply projects each year over the next three years.
Applications for those projects are expected to be available in mid-May, according to BPU staff.
Many of the developers seeking approval from the BPU have been waiting a long time and are hoping to be grandfathered in. They have already been through the second phase of review by PJM Interconnection, the regional operator of the nation's largest power grid.