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Solar panelists decry flagging political support for renewable power

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New Jersey's solar industry weathered Hurricane Sandy in relatively good shape, but renewable energy advocates say the hard work has just begun.

A panel today expressed confidence about the viability of solar technology, but less so of political support.

"Things will not change until we have enough grassroots support to put pressure on politicians to make changes," said Allan Fliss, executive director of New Jersey Green Association, which hosted the panel today at The Exchange Restaurant in Rockaway Township. "We have earmarks going to everything except where they need to be."

The talk comes at a pivotal time for the solar industry.

The spate of violent storms since 2011 has more people thinking about environmental protection, panel members said. At the same time, solar construction has slowed statewide after a frenzy that was fueled by investment aided by government incentives.

Ray Perry, managing partner of New Jersey Green Energy Consulting, said the long-term benefits solar technology trump the need to make a quick buck.

"We lost sight of what the technology is there for," Perry said. "It's there to help you reduce costs, establish some energy independence and help the environment. That's what we need to drive home, a passion for helping the environment."

Jay Fischer, president of AgChoice Organics Recycling, an Andover food recycler, questioned whether the appeal of solar is limited by its high installation cost and heavy reliance on government subsidies.

Fischer, one of nearly a dozen people who attended the event, told the panel that while green technologies are appealing, his first priority is meeting costs of running a company.

"As a taxpayer in New Jersey, I'm struggling just to survive and do business here, because my taxes are going through the roof," Fischer said.

Panel members replied that the industry is seeking a level playing field, noting that solar gets a fraction of government support that fossil-fuel industries have historically received.

Members also stressed the durability of solar equipment compared with damage suffered by conventional power lines after Hurricane Sandy.

"No solar panels were flying in the street like electrical wires that were flying on my street on everybody's lawn," Fliss said. "Solar panels made it."

Salesman Darryn Lacy noted that among 100 or so residential solar panels by Geoscape Solar of Livingston, none were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. But solar panels were not operable during the storm, said Alan Cowe, owner of Bysolar Inc. in Denville.

The key is developing battery backup systems, something consumers have been slow to embrace because of cost. Such systems can surpass $10,000 to install, Cowe said. The price needs to fall at least in half to make it more affordable, he said.

Panel members agreed that New Jersey needs to streamline its process of obtaining permits, which they described as a lengthy and expensive process that varies from town to town.

A recent survey by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, shows New Jersey fell from second to third in a nationwide ranking of solar energy, falling behind Arizona.

At the same time, the state has surpassed one gigawatt of installed solar energy. Equal to 1 billion watts, a gigawatt is enough to power about 139,000 homes. Only California and Arizona have achieved that mark.

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