The Star-Ledger

N.J. Solar Energy Plan To Power 64k Homes By 2013

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, July 29, 2009

By Danny Teigman and Joseph R. Perone / The Star-Ledger

The state Board of Public Utilities today approved a $515 million plan for Public Service Electric & Gas to install thousands of miniature solar power generators on utility poles and rooftops throughout the state.

The program is part of a PSE&G plan to increase the state's solar energy generation an additional 80 megawatts by 2013 — or enough energy to power 64,000 homes. Of the $515 million, $200 million was awarded to Petra Solar, the South Plainfield company chosen to install the units.

The program — which PSE&G said will make New Jersey second in the nation in solar power generation behind California — will cost the utility's customers about $1.28 annually for the first year, rising to about $4.08 a year in 2028. Of the 80 megawatts, about half will come from pole-mounted panels that will feed electricity directly into the grid, with the other half coming from equally small roof-top units.

The pole-mounted devices, which cost about $1,000 apiece, are expected to help augment the power supply during peak periods when demand from customers spikes. Currently, utilities have to use special power plants that are expensive to run during peak periods.

"This is the single largest distributed installation in the world," said Shihab Kuran, Petra Solar's chief executive, who will build the systems in Middlesex County.

The program will enable the state to dramatically increase its consumption of so-called green energy rather than relying on fossil fuels. However, it also is raising some questions about the role of a former state official connected to the project.

Petra Solar hired Scott Weiner as the company's vice president and general counsel on May 26. Weiner, a former head of the BPU in the 1990s and former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, was named in a 2006 state audit that criticized how the BPU handled its Clean Energy Program. Weiner was the founder of Rutgers University's Center for Energy, Economic & Environmental Policy, which the BPU hired for $73,000 in 2003 to set up meetings of a council that advised the agency on how to run the energy program. The center later won a $3.7 million no-bid contract from the BPU to independently evaluate the program. State auditors questioned the center's dual role as a "potential conflict of interest." At the time, Weiner denied there was any conflict.

Some BPU critics questioned whether his hiring by Petra unfairly affected the bidding process for the solar project .

"Given Weiner's history in state government, it certainly gives the appearance of a conflict of interest," said Ev Liebman, the director of organizing and advocacy at New Jersey Citizen Action, a watchdog group.

"In these times, the appearance of a conflict is enough to call everything into question," said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, a business trade group.

Weiner downplayed his role in Petra's successful bid to win the contract. "Any one who is aware of the facts of the transaction would conclude immediately that there's no conflict," Weiner said tonight in a telephone interview. "Besides the fact that theory denigrates the work and professional integrity of scores of people, it attributes to me a capability that far exceeds my reach.

Kuran denied any link between his company's contract and Weiner's hiring. He said Petra tested installations of its system with PSE&G in the spring of 2008, and that it entered into exclusive negotiations with the state's largest utility on March 30, two months before Weiner was hired.

"We need people with regulatory knowledge," he said of Weiner's hiring. "We're not a company that just got born after we met Scott. We have a long and clean history. It is our success that attracted Mr. Weiner to a company like ours and not the other way around."

Petra was founded in 2006 by Kuran, a former executive with Fairchild Semiconductor and Anadigics, a Warren Township microchip maker. Kuran, who was born in Jordan, has a doctorate in electrical engineering. He said he plans to add 100 people to his work force, which now numbers 40.

Al Matos, PSE&G's vice president of renewable and energy solutions, said that 30 companies were involved in the bidding process and that Petra won based on merits, not influence.

Petra's technology, licensed from the University of Central Florida, is designed to be low cost and to efficiently convert solar power for use by a utility power grid. The system also can communicate with the utility's power grid so they can read meters remotely, according to Kuran.

"This is a good day," said Jeanne Fox, the BPU's president. "The utilities now have another way to finance solar."

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