Solar energy is hot in New Jersey and that is making New Jersey one of the hottest places to be, according to Michele Siekerka, assistant commissioner for economic growth and green energy at the state Department of Environmental Protection. “When I would attend conferences on solar energy a few years ago everyone was talking about the Germans. Today, the Germans are all talking about New Jersey,” she explains.

Right now New Jersey is second in the nation only to California in the amount of solar energy it produces — 230 megawatts per day. What does that mean in layman’s terms? “Think about a typical light bulb that is 75 or 100 watts. A megawatt is 1 million watts,” Siekerka says, “and 230 megawatts can power about 800 homes.”

Siekerka will be the guest speaker at the Green Initiatives luncheon of the Greater Bordentown Chapter of the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, March 29, at 11 a.m. at Villa Mannino restaurant in Bordentown. $45. Visit www.mercerchamber.org.

Siekerka is a familiar face to members of the Mercer Chamber, where she held the position of president and CEO for six years until her appointment at the DEP last July. The Robbinsville resident also recently completed a year-long Ford Foundation Fellowship for Regional Sustainable Development, working with chambers of commerce and business leaders from around the country to develop regional action plans.

Prior to her six-year stint with the Mercer Chamber, Siekerka worked as a senior legal consultant and vice president of human resources at AAA. Prior to that, she was a partner in a Mercer County law practice. She earned her bachelor’s in political science and German from Rutgers University and her J.D. from Temple in 1989.

Siekerka’s new position is designed to work with environmental advocacy organizations, large and small businesses and industry, local governments, and residents to identify and create opportunities for economic growth while safeguarding the environment.

Siekerka feels that the recent incidents at Japan’s nuclear power plant make it even more imperative that we pursue diverse energy sources, particularly those that are clean and green. “The recent international situation should cause us to move ahead even more boldly and decisively to make large-scale green energy a reality, including offshore wind,” she says.

#b#Economic growth#/b#. Siekerka’s talk at the chamber luncheon will focus on the value of going green for members of the business community. “Green is great for economic growth,” says Siekerka, particularly at a time when many segments of the economy are recovering more slowly from the recession of the past few years. Statistics show that while only 2 percent job growth is expected in the next 12 months in the economy as a whole, the expected job growth in the green sector is 26 percent.

#b#More than temporary employment#/b#. The average solar manufacturing company employs 24 workers, while a solar installation company employs eight. “Many people think of installation as temporary employment, but in the case of solar installation, there is so much demand that companies are moving straight from one job to the next,” she says.

While the stereotype of an installation job is that of a low-skill job for low pay, the opposite is true for solar installation positions. “These are highly skilled workers who command good salaries and have secure jobs and benefits,” Siekerka says. “They are making more than just a living wage.”

Two companies in particular are making headlines in solar energy in New Jersey. MX Solar of Somerset opened last fall. The solar panel manufacturer expects to double its production within one year. And Petra Solar in South Plainfield has a contract with PSE&G to manufacture “smart solar panels” for utility poles throughout the state. The 200,000 panels are being installed on existing poles. Each panel provides about 200 watts of power. About 72,000 panels have been installed to date.

#b#Energy from the wind#/b#. Solar energy, however, is not the only renewable source of energy the New Jersey DEP is promoting for the state. Offshore wind energy is another area that is just beginning to be developed. Off-shore wind energy facilities are installed on the continental shelf, about 20 miles offshore, in waters controlled by the federal government, rather than the state, making installation an even more complex and regulated procedure.

The state spent two years studying the effects of wind energy installations on the environment, Siekerka says. A baseline study on environmental impact was completed on the area from Seaside Park to Sea Isle City, from the shore to 20 miles out to sea. The map produced divided the area into blocks that identify the best areas for offshore wind installations. Interested companies will make their bids based on these blocks, she says. Three developers have interim leases with the federal government for experimental research projects in the area. Companies that produce energy from offshore wind installations will be able to sell it back to New Jersey energy companies.

But you don’t have to be an energy company to benefit from offshore wind. The new industry will generate other types of jobs throughout the state, and will bring manufacturing businesses to New Jersey. “These wind turbines are huge pieces of equipment that need to be manufactured close to the installation site,” Siekerka says. “My goal is to attract more manufacturing to the state and to build the supply chain for offshore wind energy. I want to make sure that New Jersey gets its piece of the pie.”

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