Between two acronyms, a world of difference for New Jersey solar power
The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities’ new program for solar projects has been a disaster, argues an official with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. (Getty Images)
To most people in New Jersey, TREC and SuSi might sound like characters in a sci-fi movie or maybe an oddball comedy team. But to members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, they are all too real and can mean the difference between going to work or collecting unemployment.
Let me explain.
Increasingly, the skilled electricians who are in our union are working on the installation of huge solar panel assemblies. They’re relied upon for the really big jobs, like the vast solar arrays being sited on landfills and abandoned industrial sites. These projects are part of the infrastructure improvements that will bring consumers clean, safe, affordable, renewable energy. And they put food on the tables of electrical workers’ families.
The clean energy industry is the key to a bright future for everyone. Our members build the racking that supports solar panels. They set the panels into the racks, then ground the units and install inverters that enable the energy being generated to power buildings or be sold to the electric grid.
But the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is changing the rules in the middle of the game, with horrible results. They had been offering support for big solar projects through TREC, which stands for Transitional Renewable Energy Certificate. It helped project developers who were buying land and risking capital for solar projects. Everything was good. Then BPU decided to scrap TREC and introduce a different program, called Successor Solar Incentive Program, or SuSi for short. It’s been a disaster.
SuSi is so inadequate that developers have all but stopped submitting applications to BPU for large-scale solar projects. Local 102 of the IBEW, where I’m business manager, had more than twice as many members employed on big solar projects on any given day under the successful TREC program than with the failed SuSi scheme — and the gap is expected to widen.
Our local, based in Parsippany, covers eight counties in northern New Jersey. There are five other locals in the state; do the math and you understand that a lot fewer of our members are working under SuSi than did under TREC — for no good reasons.
The problem is made worse because some of the projects still tied to TREC are experiencing supply chain delays and other obstacles because of the pandemic and other global disruptions. They are in danger of missing the project completion deadlines set under TREC. The logical response from BPU would be to simply extend those deadlines. But BPU won’t — again, for no good reason.
One result of these policy changes is that New Jersey is in danger of losing its leadership role in an emerging industry.
Solar energy is a roughly $12 billion industry in New Jersey. It employs nearly 6,000 people, with the potential for many more. Not so long ago, New Jersey was No. 1 in the United States in solar installations. Now we’re eighth and likely to drop a few more notches, in no small measure due to BPU’s TREC-to-SuSi switcheroo. That’s bad news all around, including for the state’s clean energy goals under New Jersey’s energy master plan. The plan calls for ending reliance on fossil fuels by 2050. It’s an appropriately ambitious goal in serious danger of not being met as work on large-scale solar projects dries up.
This story doesn’t have to end unhappily. The Assembly unanimously passed legislation that would extend the deadlines for TREC-registered, utility-scale solar projects on brownfields and landfills, but it has not passed the state Senate.
It’s time to stop “fixing” things that weren’t broken and get back to the job of putting solar power to work for the people of New Jersey — and putting people to work on solar power. Labor and management don’t always see eye to eye, but on this issue of such great importance to them and us, and the rest of New Jersey, we are totally united.
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