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Solar generator: New Jersey's clean energy industry plans to keep growing despite headwinds from Washington

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Wayne Pfisterer, president of Pfister Energy, says that it has become much easier to get businesses to buy into green energy.
Wayne Pfisterer, president of Pfister Energy, says that it has become much easier to get businesses to buy into green energy. - ()

Green energy industry watchers such as Lyle Rawlings can be quick to sound the alarm. When they see potential threats to their sector, they aren't shy about making it known — and understandably so, having seen New Jersey's renewable energy market bottom out in the sometimes-volatile industry's history.

So when an advocate of fossil fuel production — one highly skeptical of renewable energy investments — took occupancy of the White House, it seemed just the time for the warning bells to ring.

Yet, Rawlings and others are announcing only this: They’re more optimistic than ever.

“Going forward, the low cost of the technology has set us up for strong growth in solar here in New Jersey, and we understand how to deliver it much cheaper to ratepayers, even if there are less incentives,” said Rawlings, CEO and president of Flemington-based Advanced Solar Products.

Rawlings, who also is co-founder of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, said the price of solar energy is about one-tenth the price it was about seven years ago. Solar has been marching toward serious expansion in New Jersey with these cheaper prices, he said.

“And we don’t believe the new administration in Washington is going to slow down that growth very much,” he added. “The technology has progressed too far.”

So much solar infrastructure already is in place in the state that this spring will feature days of nearly 20 percent of New Jersey’s peak power coming from solar, Rawlings said. He sees that increasing in coming years, factoring in the cost reduction of high manufacturing volumes and more efficient technology.

County comparison

Here is a breakdown of the Garden State’s top-ranking counties for solar jobs:
1. Bergen: 823 jobs
2. Monmouth: 644 jobs
3. Middlesex: 588 jobs
4. Essex: 514 jobs
5. Morris: 509 jobs
Source: The Solar Foundation’s 2016 census

Wayne Pfisterer, president of Hawthorne-based Pfister Energy, agrees. Operating a business that implements green energy solutions for companies, the hard sell Pfisterer once had is becoming easier by the day.

“It’s like anything else: I remember the first time I saw a big-screen TV in a store, the price tag was around $20,000; you can buy one now that’s 10 times better than that for probably $1,000,” he said.

No one doubts that the stance toward renewable energy on the federal level is changing. At the same time, Pfisterer doesn’t believe there’s any initiative that could hand significant market share back to a sector such as coal energy.

“I think you’ll find that investment is hard-pressed to go back into those industries,” he said.

Neil Auerbach, CEO and founder of Teaneck-based Hudson Clean Energy, a private equity firm that specializes in renewable energy investments, said he doesn’t expect investor attention to turn away from renewable energy in light of the political changeover. He sees the administration as being primarily pro-coal, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to being anti-renewables.

“The fact that they might be trying to lift the fortunes of the coal industry doesn’t mean everyone else suffers,” Auerbach said. “But who knows how effective it will be anyways, because coal has had challenges from natural gas that are more serious than anything else.”

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In trying to get a foothold, renewable energy markets always have primarily looked to states for support.

Gov. Chris Christie made an effort to get wind energy developments underway during his tenure. But projects to bring wind farms to areas along the Jersey Shore have been stalled for the past several years.

Allan Fliss, executive director of the New Jersey Green Association, a resource for those in the sustainable business arena, said New Jersey is known for its solar — and he expects that to remain the big ticket item.

“And as far as other (alternative energy sources), we don’t know, pardon the expression, which way the wind will blow,” he said. “Regardless, I don’t think the momentum that’s been gained in any sustainable area here is going to dwindle.”

It’s partly a social reason that the green sector’s growth is a safe bet in the Garden State, as Jenna Arkin, product development director at Earth Friendly Products, explained:

“The thing that’s interesting about the current political climate is that you’ve seen people get very galvanized behind (sustainability), given that the EPA and a lot of programming is potentially getting cut. There have been people really speaking out in support of environmental protection.”

It’s a force that translates to opportunity for the green business such as Earth Friendly Products, a company that — celebrating its 50th anniversary — is one of the longest-running businesses with an expressly eco-friendly purpose.

“We always say the consumer gets to vote every day at the cash register — they vote with their dollars,” Arkin said. “If the government doesn’t play as active a role in environmental protection … people can still play a role in making healthier choices for their families.”

That’s not to say officials at Earth Friendly Products, a California firm that has a manufacturing center in Parsippany, are at odds with all the new administration’s initiatives. The push for manufacturing in the United States is something that resonates with leaders of the company, which has based four production facilities in the country.

“That’s supporting American manufacturing, which we know has been on a decline in many different sectors,” Arkin said.

The green sector’s potential to invite local manufacturing and the corresponding jobs are perks enough to earn it support during New Jersey’s upcoming gubernatorial race.

But those in the industry aren’t resting everything on it.

“We simply don’t need incentives at the same level we did in the past,” Pfisterer said.

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Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson covers a wide array of sectors as a general assignment reporter. Before joining NJBIZ in 2014, he lived on the West Coast and wrote for a newspaper in Davis, Calif. You can contact him at brettj@njbiz.com or @ReporterBrett on Twitter.

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