Friday, May 11, 2012

Solar Panels Spreading Across New Jersey


By JOSEPH PIANESE

Teaneck, NJ          (photo/Jan Barry)
The installation of solar panels in New Jersey ranks among the highest in the country and is set to continue to grow. Over the past couple of years, solar panels have exploded onto the Garden State landscape. They were most commonly seen in multiple-acre solar farms, on rooftops, and car ports. But now they quite likely line the streets of your local neighborhood.

Behind a majority of New Jersey’s solar energy projects is its largest utility provider, Public Service Gas and Electric (PSE&G). It is recognized by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) as the nation’s third most solar connected utility, ranking behind only Pacific Gas and Electric in California and Florida Power and Light Company.

The same report by SEPA also shows that PSE&G ranks second nationally in providing solar watts per customer with 35.2 watts to over 2.1 million customers. The previous year PSE&G ranked only 11th, propelling nine places in just one year. In first is California- based Silicon Valley Power, which distributed 39.9 watts per customer but is a much smaller company and provides for a total of only 52,000 customers.

Another New Jersey company, Atlantic City Electric Company, is also on the list at ninth. New Jersey and California are the only two states in the country to have more than one utility company in the top ten, showing that New Jersey’s solar program is absolutely among the elite.

PSE&G is pursuing a two-track approach to developing 80 megawatts of grid connected solar power, which is the first and most comprehensive of its kind in the country. The projects are funded by a $515 million investment under a state mandate that by 2021 power providers receive 22.5% of their electricity from renewable sources.

The mandate is part of New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan, which originated in 1977 and has seen periodic updates. The law requires a regularly updated plan to address the production, distribution, consumption, and conservation of electricity in New Jersey. The last update was in 2008 under Governor Jon S. Corzine, which put the solar program into effect, and went under analysis by the Christie Administration last year.

Magawatts from Solar Panels on Utility Poles

To meet the demands of the mandate, PSE&G launched its two track program called “Solar 4 All.” This program is backed by the company’s $515 million investment towards adding 80 megawatts to the grid through new solar farms, carports, and roof systems along with utility pole solar units. The total of 80 megawatts is to be evenly (50/50) distributed among different sources. On the first track lie solar farms, roof systems and carports, which together will add 40 megawatts to the grid. The second track is the installation of utility pole solar units throughout three-quarters of the entire state, which will also add an additional 40 megawatts. As of mid-September 2011, more than 44 megawatts were already in service.

Although solar panels provide the state with a renewable energy source, are they the best option? Especially with the utility pole attachments, which have created quite a stir among citizens in various PSE&G serviced towns, what are the solar panels providing, exactly?

Well, solar capacity more than doubled last year in the state and now totals approximately 305 megawatts, which is enough to power approximately 45,000 households. The Solar 4 All program alone, when completed, will provide enough power for another 13,000 homes.

The program has also led to the recycling of unused brown fields into green, energy producing solar farms. PSE&G alone operates three solar farms (Trenton, Silver Lake/Edison, and Linden) while another is being built in Hackensack. If the entire Solar 4 All program consisted of only solar farms, it would require 340 acres of land, or about 110 football fields, which brings to the point why solar panels are even being attached to local utility poles.

PSE&G is alleviating the process of purchasing large amounts of land, possibly wooded areas, to build solar farms by opting for the use of utility poles instead. It makes perfect sense. The company doesn’t have to buy any real estate at its customer’s expense because they already own the utility poles. By attaching solar panels, they generate electricity in a timely manner and of little expense to the customer that goes right into the local system rather than being concentrated in one offset area.

The utility company has received many complaints in regards to the solar panels popping up on local streets. Even Governor Chris Christie has called the plan to implement the panels “extremely aggressive.”

Many have called them “ugly” and “eyesores” and even requested that panels to be moved to a different pole.  The trouble with this is that moving the panels is very difficult due to the requirements of a pole to even be eligible to house one. Only a quarter of PSE&G’s 800,000 utility poles are eligible. The largest factor is if the panel is facing south and has the potential to reach as much sunlight as possible in order to generate the maximum amount of energy.

Despite the complaints of the panels being “too ugly,” they are providing the foundation for a larger network of clean and renewable energy in New Jersey. Whether or not the utility poles continue to be given more solar panels, the state is certainly headed in the right direction and will only provide a better, greener future.

Joseph Pianese is a junior at Ramapo College majoring in Communication Arts.

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