N.J. solar giant hopes to make it big out West

SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. -- It's from a plain-looking office park in this central Jersey town that Petra Solar transformed the physical look of the Garden State.

In an effort to combat climate change and encourage renewable energy use, New Jersey's public utility commission launched a landmark solar renewable energy certificate market in 2001. Ten years later, a state that could then only count six total systems now has more than 10,000 of them installed, and none are more visible than Petra's, which are made up of tens of thousands of panels bolted directly onto utility poles across the state, delivering clean energy straight to the grid.

Now Petra executives are looking westward, eager to make California's roadways look a little bit more like some of New Jersey's -- lined with row after row of pole-mounted panels throughout.

The reason Petra Solar is growing confident of future success in the highly competitive California market, they say, is the increasingly burdensome regulatory and litigious environment that's keeping large solar plants out of the Mojave Desert and other environments. Concerns over plant and wildlife habitat loss are preventing the majority of new solar plants from being built in the state in a timely and cost-effective manner, if they are built at all.

That means a growing emphasis on city-based systems, a Petra specialty.

In California, "we find ambitious and generous goals on the renewables front, but we also find major delays due to the siting and permitting of these large projects that are needed to meet the renewable portfolio standard targets," said Petra Solar CEO Shihab Kuran in an interview. "And that is where Petra Solar comes in."

Cloudy N.J. becoming a beacon for solar?

So far, the company's West Coast expansion is only just beginning.


About 15 full-time staff members are out West now trying to make it happen, Kuran said, and only 100 or so panels have been put up in various pilot projects with city governments experimenting with solar on their light poles.

But breaking out of New Jersey and into sunny California would cement Petra's success and could see hundreds if not thousands added to its payroll. In a recent white paper the company produced to explore the West Coast market potential, Petra estimated that installing SunWave on half of California's utility poles would add 720 megawatts of solar generating capacity to the state. Experts say California has about 10,000 MW of installed capacity today.

Mignon Marks, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industry Association (CALSEIA), acknowledges that Petra is entering the market at an auspicious time.

"There's definitely support in the governor's office to develop more of the state's distributed solar resources," Marks said. At the same time, she disagrees that the state is beginning to give up on large-scale solar plants outside cities, noting that the state government is working to ease the regulatory hurdles that too often get projects bogged down.

Petra has become virtually synonymous with the explosive growth in solar power in New Jersey, where the industry is believed by some to be growing faster than in California, creating some disturbances to the marketplace (Greenwire, Aug. 25).

By the end of the year, some experts believe, New Jersey could hit 500 MW of total solar installed capacity -- with roughly 40 of those megawatts coming from Petra Solar's panels, thanks to a program run by the state's largest utility, PSE&G.

Last week, Boston-based Lux Research Inc. issued a report naming New Jersey the best place in the world to invest in solar power in the first half of 2011, in terms of internal rates of return. The small, relatively cloudy Northeastern state beat out Portugal, Australia, Italy and India in Lux's rankings. California didn't make the top five, but analysts at Lux still see opportunities for growth there.

"California, the largest market in the U.S., will continue to see steady growth thanks to stability and visibility with step-down incentives and recent RPS [renewable portfolio standards] legislation," Lux Research said in the report.

New Calif. utility models could help

Kuran agrees. He cited Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) "Clean Local Energy Accessible Now for California Act of 2011," or "CLEAN California Act," and S.B. 17 as proof that lawmakers there are getting increasingly frustrated with their own red tape. On top of the state's ambitious 33 percent renewable portfolio standard, Brown is aiming to have 12 gigawatts of solar capacity installed in communities, while S.B. 17 seeks to have so-called "smart grid" technologies integrated throughout California's energy infrastructure.

The state is exploring ways to streamline the process of approving large solar power plants, Kuran admitted. But he sees even stronger signs pointing to a concentration on solar in cities and towns, where it can be fed into growing power demand directly, he said.

Adam Browning, executive director of the Vote Solar Initiative in San Francisco, says the picture in his state is more mixed.

The state isn't turning completely away from a model where utilities are forced to buy from independent power producers, many selling power from massive rural solar farms, Browning said. But utilities are allowed to experiment with building and operating their own systems directly. That growing trend could benefit Petra, he said.

"For this program, essentially the deal that has been worked out with regulators is that it's a 50-50 split," Browning explained. "The utilities can experiment with this sort of self-owned generation at the same time that they also buy an equivalent amount from independent power producers."

The SunWave system, which has made Petra a success in New Jersey, is more than just a simple panel wired to a utility line, a point company officials take pains to stress when selling their products to customers and potential investors.

Each panel has attached to it equipment incorporating smart grid applications developed in conjunction with the Department of Energy. Though PSE&G hasn't taken full advantage of all of Petra's technological offerings, a completely fitted-out system has the ability to both send data and receive instructions wirelessly, bouncing signals off one another before they're beamed to a central command terminal.

Pricing: the make-or-break issue

The idea is to allow the utility to control the array, no matter how widely dispersed it is, in much the same way that it could control any other power plant. Operators can tell how much electricity the solar panels are generating and reduce loads coming online from other generators to compensate.

The systems are also proving handy in more ways than just delivering carbon-free energy. During Tropical Storm Irene's recent run over New Jersey, Petra says it helped PSE&G use the systems to determine where power outages were happening, enabling quicker response.

Joe DeLuca, vice president of development and product management at Petra, says the system can also prevent overloading, or outages should unexpected cloudy cover suddenly knock out a significant percentage of the power. The company is also experimenting with energy storage applications, an enhancement that could allow the panels to store extra power in batteries when it's not needed, then draw on those batteries should clouds or storms disrupt generation.

"We've integrated in the capabilities to do this reactive power," DeLuca said. "As the voltage rises due to too much generation, we sense it; we can inject this reactive power which can help stabilize that voltage level up to a point, and if it still keeps going, we can actually scale back the power output."

The company's emphasis on utilizing existing infrastructure also makes it a strong candidate for the California market, Kuran said. For mounting the systems to utility-owned poles, there are minimal permitting requirements and no additional infrastructure expenditures. And they can be installed using the utility company's existing workforce, each unit taking about 30 minutes to connect before it is up and running.

The massive PSE&G project in New Jersey "is the only system in the world where you're building 40 megawatts without a single penny invested in the upgrade of transmission or distribution infrastructure, or building new substations, or clearing out large areas of land and relocating animals," Kuran said.

Marks at CALSEIA warns that Kuran should be prepared for some stiff competition in the active California market.

"There's a lot of competition in California, that's true, so they better have something unique to offer," she said. "They better have a good, competitive project at a good price."

Browning says that success for Petra Solar in California will come down to the pricing it can offer the utilities. The company will also have to count on a desire by Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric and other large power providers to continue building and owning their own systems, he said, but a 33 percent renewable energy target should leave room for all different types of solar applications for years to come.

"Whether it will all go out specifically on a pole, I can't say," said Browning. "There's no mandate for that to happen, but it's definitely in line philosophically with a lot of what is happening in the state, with the caveat that there's immense cost pressures."

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