Solar power is the darling of environmentalists. But maybe not when it’s in your own backyard. Two solar array projects — one in West Windsor and another in Hillsborough — have raised the ire of homeowners and municipal officials who are concerned about the impacts of the projects.
Meanwhile, the Lawrenceville School just celebrated the dedication of a 30-acre solar farm on its grounds with no controversy in sight. The project was constructed far from residential homes and on open land.
In West Windsor, the township council passed a resolution asking that the township’s planning board be allowed to conduct a courtesy review of a planned 10-megawatt solar project by developer SunLight General Capital of Englewood on the grounds of Mercer County Community College. Construction was slated to begin on the $38 million solar field project this month.
But according to Julie Wilmot, Mercer County communications director, a ribbon cutting ceremony kicking off construction scheduled for Friday, May 11, has been postponed.
A meeting, tentatively scheduled for Monday, May 21, at the college, will be held to give the public a chance for more input and to ask questions. The county has not agreed to bring the project before the West Windsor planning board.
Because the array is being constructed by another government entity, the township has no jurisdiction over the project and cannot require planning board approval.
In Hillsborough, Gibraltar Rock of Belle Mead, which owns and operates the East Mountain quarry formerly owned by 3M, has submitted a proposal to the township planning board to clear-cut 20 acres of Sourland forest and install a 10-acre solar array. That plan is opposed by the Sourland Planning Council due to the destruction of the forest the project would cause.
The West Windsor project is the result of efforts by the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), and the county Office of Economic Opportunity and Sustainability.
“The solar farm will save critical dollars and enable us to restore to our budget many cuts in programs and services we have made over the past two years,” said MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue.
As part of the deal, SunLight will make industry professionals available to give presentations on solar engineering and science, renewable energy development, and financing careers.
But officials and residents in West Windsor fear the negatives outweigh the positives. Council was prompted to action during a meeting on April 30, where some 60 people claimed that MCCC was refusing to cooperate or inform residents about the plans for the project, which would be constructed near township homes on South Post Road.
“MCCC has flagrantly disregarded the concerns of residents, the taxpayers, and I think that they should be held accountable for such treatment of our residents,” said Councilman Bryan Maher. “As a township we are being bamboozled by the college and the county as well.”
Also on April 30, Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh sent a letter to Donohue outlining concerns expressed by residents after he met with them in mid-April. They include:
• Stormwater runoff and chemicals, and standing water generated by the project.
• The need for review by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
• Esthetics and landscaping, the removal of trees, and the need for the solar field to be screened to reduce the visual impact on the South Post Road residents.
• The potential for noise pollution.
• The possibility of electrical fire and release of harmful gases (a Sunoco pipeline runs through the MCCC property).
• The financial impact on taxpayers if SunLight General, which was founded in 2009, goes out of business.
The mayor also questioned Donohue on financing issues. “Given the participation and partnership with the MCIA, what are the precautions you have built in to the financial strategy for funding the project?”
Among the residents speaking out against the project was Christine Bator, a former energy regulatory commissioner for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. “There is no planning board approval needed for these kind of projects but contiguous land owners need to have the right to challenge a project of this size.
“They need to be heard so we can implement mitigating measures and management. So while there may not be a law on West Windsor’s side, whatever council can do to encourage discussion with the land owners is important.”
Bator also questioned the financial viability of the project, explaining the SREC (solar renewable energy credit) market that was developed to encourage renewable energy sources to be built (one example would be rectangular solar panels that adorn PSE&G utility poles). Bator said that the project, which has been allocated $40 million in funding, is supposed to generate money from the SREC credits — payment for every kilowatt hour that it generates.
“When the program first started in 2010 those SREC payments were about $600 per kilowatt hour, now it’s about $100. I think that the MCIA should look at the current financial projections before it issues bonds for the project,” Bator said.
Maher has been calling the financial impact of the project “ridiculous” for months. At the April 30 council meeting the explanation of the tumble in SREC values disturbed him even more. “Who is it that is pushing this agenda and is unwilling to take their foot off the gas pedal? No public or private entity would ever undertake this under the current financial situations, specifically with the SRECs’ decline. I find it appalling that if somebody comes up with an idea one or two years ago and the financial situation changes that they then would not change what they do, instead proceeding down a course that is flawed materially because you want to save face and not back-pedal on a decision that you made. That’s childish at best,” Maher said.
“It is very problematic that open space and farm space that we have paid for with our hard-earned tax dollars will now be converted into an energy plant to benefit a company that is not even residing in this community. It’s outrageous that this is what’s happening to our open space money,” Maher said.
With the project in Hillsborough, most of the concerns are environmental. “While we generally support solar energy, the idea of clear-cutting forest to accommodate solar panels is perverse — particularly in a forest as fragile and ecologically important as the Sourlands,” said Cliff Wilson, president of the Sourland Planning Council, in the organization’s spring newsletter.
Wilson said that in a recent meeting with Gibraltar Rock owner John Silvi to discuss the project and other environmental matters concerning the quarry, Silvi said the solar project would reduce carbon emissions by more than 1,200 metric tons per year, and that it would take 256 acres of trees to sequester an equivalent amount of carbon.
“One could quibble with these numbers — the comparison assumes the alternative is electricity from coal-fired plants, and it ignores the release of carbon from the 20 acres of trees that will be taken down — but I am willing to grant that the project is a net benefit from the perspective of carbon emission,” Wilson said.
“The real problem is that this calculation ignores all the other ecological benefits of the forest,” he added. “The Sourland forest filters the water that eventually becomes the sparkling clear headwaters of many streams and rivers. It is home to a rich diversity of animal and plant species, many rare or endangered. The forest is especially important as a breeding area for migratory songbirds, particularly those who nest only in large wooded areas.”
“We should not have to cut down our dwindling forests to accommodate solar panels,” Wilson said. “There are hundreds of more appropriate places in Hillsborough for solar installations, starting with every rooftop and parking lot. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to think of a less appropriate site than the Sourland forest.”
But not all solar projects have resulted in controversy. On May 4 the Lawrenceville School celebrated the dedication of its recently completed 6.1 megawatt solar farm.
The project was constructed on land previously leased out by the school, according to Lisa Gillard Hanson, the school’s director of public relations. It is expected to generate enough electricity to offset 90 percent of the private high school’s annual power needs.
During the day, the array will produce nearly twice the amount of energy needed by the school. The excess will be pushed out to the township. The school will draw from Public Service Electric & Gas after sundown.
The system features 24,934 panels mounted on single axis trackers and designed to produce some 9.264 million kilowatt hours of solar electricity annually. That’s enough energy to power more than 800 typical American homes and offset 6,388 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of taking 1,253 cars off the road annually, said Hanson.
“The school community will have access to a wealth of real-time monitoring information ranging from where the panels are currently positioned to how much power is being generated to how much energy a specific campus building is using, and much more,” said Lawrenceville School Headmaster Liz Duffy.
Hanson also points out that a special wildflower mix has been planted around the solar panels, and a beekeeper has introduced honey-producing hives that can support up to 900,000 honeybees. Some of the honey will be used in the school’s dining halls and the remainder will be sold locally.
The project was developed by Linden-based TurtleEnergy, which was then purchased by KDC Solar, of Bedminster. KDC leased 30 acres of farmland from the school and owns and maintains all the solar equipment. It will sell electricity produced by the installation to the school at a fixed price for the next two decades.
The solar project is part of the school’s Green Campus holistic approach to sustainability that includes a focus on campus energy, materials, land, and water use and will provide teachers and students “data to help build a healthier, more sustainable world,” Duffy said.
Lawrenceville School, 2500 Main Street, Route 206, Lawrenceville, 08648. 609-896-0400. Liz Duffy, headmaster. www.lawrenceville.org.