The solar power industry is adding workers nearly 20 times faster than the overall economy. In fact, solar employment jobs have grown by 86 percent in the past five years, according to the National Solar Jobs Census.
Kevin Dunshee, director of community engagement at Asbury Park-based Solar Landscape, made a commitment to support community solar. The company is providing tuition-free solar installation career training, Dunshee said. In June, Solar Landscape said three of its students had been hired for solar projects and are earning the prevailing wage of $62 per hour.
Dunshee and his colleagues are working with local nonprofit organizations in New Jersey communities where they are building projects to identify candidates who can be trained to work in the industry. Dunshee says a strong community solar program will promote employment growth and provide a pipeline to high-paying, local jobs.
A community solar project is a solar array where the output is divided among multiple participants, known as subscribers. A subscriber can be a home or business that wants to use renewable energy but does not have a supply on-site.
The Community Solar Energy Pilot Program is a key component of Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of achieving 100 percent clean energy by 2050. With community solar, low- and moderate-income households will be able to participate in a more equitable market through projects located within their electric public utility’s distribution territory.
The Board of Public Utilities anticipates awarding at least an additional 75 megawatts during both the second and third years of the program, which will provide electricity to an estimated 45,000 homes over the three-year period.
“Being successful in community solar needs community buy-in, which requires meaningful engagement and partnerships,” Dunshee said. “A successful program reflects shared goals, values, and priorities. The best programs include partnerships with local nonprofits, cities and townships and community leaders.”
Before accepting applications, Solar Landscape engaged with local community organizations, nonprofits and municipalities to educate them about the relevant law and the good solar could bring to their communities.
Solar Landscape is providing 51 percent of the electricity it produces to low- and moderate-income households at a discount. “We are providing access to solar energy to households that otherwise may not have been able to get it,” Dunshee said.
These users are people who live in apartments or condominiums; senior citizens who live in adult communities and residents of affordable housing units.
Dunshee explained that community solar eliminates barriers to solar access because people no longer need panels on their rooftops to reap benefits. The cost of building a large, shared solar system locally is borne by solar developers. Residents subscribe to the electricity the project produces without long-term contracts, credit checks, or other barriers to entry.
“Since moving to Asbury Park, the area our co-founders and I grew up in, we have become members of the Housing Community Development Network of New Jersey Monmouth County Advocacy Team whose mission is to support and advocate for housing and economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income New Jersey residents,” Dunshee said.
In early 2020 the Board of Public Utilities sought stakeholder feedback in response to the first year of the program; the second year of the program will be opened later. The pilot program will generate crucial market information and implementation data, and will inform the development of a permanent community solar program once the three-year pilot is completed.
Dunshee is a co-chairman of NAIOP’s Community Action Committee, which works with members to make a meaningful difference in the communities in which Community Solar works by fighting hunger, alleviating poverty and helping promote environmental justice.
The BPU awarded more of the New Jersey Community Solar first round allocation of 20 megawatts to Solar Landscape in December 2019 than to any other company. This allocation represents 53 percent of the rooftop allocations that the agency awarded, more than 10 times as any other solar developer.
Dunshee worked in finance for 30 years and then switched careers. He fell in love with community engagement. “We will train 80 people who will do construction jobs,” Dunshee said. “The final piece is the good that projects are going to do environmentally.”
The company was started in 1985 and was one of the first companies to develop solar projects in New Jersey, Dunshee said. It was purchased by Shaun Keegan and Corey Gross in 2012 and rebranded as Solar Landscape working exclusively in the commercial and industrial space.
Keegan is an attorney and Gross is a certified electrician. They grew up in Wall Township and were friends in high school. While in law school, Keegan decided to focus on renewable energy and opened his own business.
In May 2018, Murphy signed into law the Clean Energy Act, directing the BPU to adopt rules and regulations within 210 days to establish a pilot program that would enable electric utility customers to participate in solar energy projects remotely located from their properties and receive a credit on their utility bills. Community solar will therefore enable access to clean energy generation for utility customers who are currently unable to place solar generation directly on their own properties. The BPU is particularly interested in ensuring that low-and moderate-income customers are able to access community solar, and that community solar development is pursued without materially compromising the preservation of open space or protected lands in New Jersey. The Pilot Program is designed to provide the necessary experience and to lay the groundwork for the development and implementation of a full-scale Community Solar Energy Program within 36 months of the signing of the Clean Energy Act.
The Board of Public Utilities works to ensure that safe, adequate, and proper utility services are provided at reasonable, non-discriminatory rates to all members of the public who desire such services. The board develops and regulates a competitive, economically cost-effective energy policy that promotes responsible growth and clean renewable energy sources while maintaining a high quality of life in New Jersey.