Thursday, July 7, 2011

NJ's solar growth confronts difficult land-use issues

Solar energy development in New Jersey is second only to California. So far, it has proceeded in a way that is generally consistent with smart growth principles. But that may be changing.  

In this  guest post, Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, examines the challenges that lie ashed for the state and and for this popular form of alternative energy.  

New Jersey’s Solar Ambitions Raise Difficult Land-Use Issues
By Chris Sturm

  • Solar power has become increasingly popular in New Jersey over the past decade, due largely to state financial incentives designed to encourage solar development.
  • Home to more than 9,000 solar projects with a total capacity of more than 320 megawatts, New Jersey ranks second only to California in total installed solar capacity. Due to its much smaller land area, New Jersey has by far the most solar capacity per square mile of any state.
  • New Jersey’s Solar Advancement Act of 2010 calls for adding 4,000 megawatts of electricity output from solar by 2026, a 13-fold increase from today’s level. This goal could be met using an estimated 24 square miles of land or 300 million square feet of rooftop—or, most likely, a combination of the two.
  • Because of New Jersey’s small size, the effects of solar development on other land uses are more pressing than in other states. As solar development continues, the issue of whether a solar installation is the best use of a given parcel of land will become increasingly salient.

Regulatory, Incentive and Policy Framework Needed For Sizing, Siting

Solar development in New Jersey has so far proceeded in a way that is generally consistent with smart growth principles. Most of the development has been in the form of net-metered installations (supplying electricity predominantly for on-site use) on rooftops in developed areas, rather than sprawling solar arrays on farmland or other sensitive lands in rural areas. The largest rooftop solar installation in the United States, with a capacity of 4 megawatts, was completed in April in Edison.

At industrial facilities and some other sites with extensive electricity needs and large amounts of land available, solar installations have been mounted on the ground. This is the case, for example, at the Rutgers Solar Farm in Piscataway, which generates about 11 percent of the electricity used on the university’s Livingston Campus. Last month, McGraw-Hill announced plans to install the nation’s largest privately owned, net-metered, ground-mounted solar array at its East Windsor facility, with a potential capacity of 14.1 megawatts.

Even the largest solar facilities in New Jersey to date have primarily supplied electricity for on-site use. There has been much discussion recently, however, about increased development of large, utility-scale solar facilities that function as power providers, much like traditional power plants. Although only a handful of projects of this scale have actually been built or approved for construction in the state, several more are under active consideration, especially in South Jersey.

As New Jersey considers how and where solar energy should be developed in the years to come, some general principles will ensure that solar facilities are sized—and sited—in ways that are appropriate to their surroundings. Because of its small size and big ambitions for solar energy, the state will need to be sensitive to the land-use impacts of solar development.

For example, establishing a hierarchy of state incentives that gives priority to rooftop installations over ground-mounted projects would encourage a proven source of solar energy that has minimal impact on land consumption. Discouraging utility-scale solar development on farmland would ensure that agriculture retains its role as a thriving contributor to the Garden State’s economy, environment and quality of life. Enacting and enforcing regulations that mitigate any negative impacts from solar development, such as visual impairment or noise from inverters that link solar panels to the electricity grid, would protect residents from unwanted intrusion on their neighborhoods.

Brownfield sites, especially closed landfills, have great potential for solar development, as well as other productive uses. Considerable attention must be paid to the issue of whether a more active use of a given site, especially in a developed area, might be preferable. Other marginal sites, such as underutilized industrial properties, may have significant potential not only for solar energy, but also for commercial, residential or mixed-use redevelopment.

The land-use issues raised by solar development are numerous and complex, and the policy and regulatory options available to state and local government agencies to deal with them are equally diverse and complicated. Although the recently released Energy Master Plan recommends scaling back some of the state incentives for renewable sources, the incentives will likely continue to provide a powerful tool to shape solar siting decisions. If New Jersey is to remain in the forefront of solar energy development, policymakers will have to marshal all of the regulatory and fiscal options to confront these issues directly—and soon.

Chris Sturm, Senior Director of State Policy, NJ Future
Chris is responsible for policy development and advocacy in the areas of state and regional planning and land conservation. She holds a masters degree in Public Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University where she concentrated on Urban and Regional Planning. Her career experience includes serving as the Assistant Director of the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation, as well as working for the MSM Regional Council (now PlanSmart NJ), the Eagleton Institute, and the Office of State Planning. Email Chris or reach by phone at 609-393-0008 ext. 114.

We welcome your thoughts on solar energy development in New Jersey--and elsewhere.  Use the comment box below. If one is not visible, click on the tiny 'comments' line to activate it. 

Like this post? You'll love our daily newsletter, EnviroPolitics
Try it free for 30 days!  No obligation. Cancel anytime with one click.

Subscribe here to view all our YouTube videos

Repost this article