Maybe. Lenders and PPA companies are all about taking virtually no risk right now. Cost of tax equity has risen and underwriting guidelines have gotten tougher. The recent softness in NJ SREC values has really impacted things.
So what to do?
It depends. If you’re looking to construct a wholesale to the grid project, it’s going to be a lot harder to get this off the ground. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve spent developing your project to this point, you’re probably out of luck for now.
If you have a net metered project, you’re probably OK if you and your lender are fine with paybacks being in the 6-7 year range.
Investment money moves in large chunks. In New Jersey, we’ve been lucky for the past several years that solar paid off so well due to artificially high SREC values. Now, it’s a more normal market. Those large chunks of money are now seeking higher returns and solar is still a phenomenal value in New Jersey but the profile customer has changed. Gone are most of the pure-play investors. It’s now a game for the long-term owners. If you own your own business and building and have sufficient free cash flow, come on in. We’re all here to help and there’s plenty of money for you.
While New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the US, there is a large portion of the state that is largely open space – the southern part of the state. For the most part, this area maps pretty closely to the Atlantic City Electric service area.
For the past few years, there have been a lot of wholesale projects proposed and applied for in the ACE territory. This process is managed by PJM – the folks who run the regional electric grid. They manage the application process with a ‘first come, first served’ approach. Once an application is made, the applicant has 7 years to get the project going. Most projects haven’t a prayer of ever seeing the light of day. But that doesn’t matter…PJM treats the grid as if these projects are already producing so as to avoid any detrimental effect to the grid.
So we have a situation where applications for projects that won’t be built are keeping financially viable net-metered projects from moving ahead. We have over $35 million of these projects…business owners have the funding, the desire and have given my company the go-ahead to build solar arrays. But we can’t because of the PJM process.
Our net-metered customers run businesses in New Jersey, pay lots of taxes and employ many New Jersey residents, all of whom pay taxes and spend their income in the community. All good stuff – the way things are supposed to work.
What can we do about it? Not sure. We’ve met with the PJM folks, the ACE folks, the BPU commissioners, elected officials… pretty much everyone who would meet with us. Everyone acknowledges the problem, but the path to fix it isn’t clear. The electric grid in ACE’s territory is not robust and they should be able to ensure that solar installations don’t impair their ability to deliver electricity to their customers.
One thing we’ve suggested but have yet to see move forward is for there to be some vetting of wholesale applications. We believe the applicant should have to prove financing commitments of the project before PJM reserves that capacity. Also, net-metered projects should absolutely receive preferential treatment. In a time when the New Jersey economic theme is all about jobs, that should be a ‘no brainer.’