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Is Mercer building a death star?

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Mercer’s plans to build an enormous, giaganto, humungous, whoppin’ ass solar field on the farmland surrounding the college, received blowback from some locals, but ultimately the college got the go ahead. Those opposed to the project, whose objection was printed as an open letter to the community in the May 14, 2012 issue of The VOICE, did so primarily on the grounds that the school was going to “[remove] 130 60-year old trees” and dig up a lot of soil that the writers said was “classified as in the 20% best for farming in the country.” They also complained about the costs of the project and the bitchy attitude the college adopted in dealing with them.

They are right that the solar plan is problematic, but mostly they’ve been griping about the wrong issues.

Sixty year old trees are hardly giant Redwoods, and for once I’ll buy the college that they are going to replace said trees. And the reason the soil isn’t classified above “20% best” is probably because it has been growing crops of pesticide laden, genetically engineered corn for decades. It’s true, the college hasn’t exactly made West Windsor better to look at, especially with that gaudy friggin’ sign out front, but this town hasn’t really been scenic since George Washington passed through.

The community members’ concerns about the scheme the college is using to fund this debacle hold more water. The payment model allows the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA) to build the solar farm at significant risk to the Mercer County taxpayers. There is no upfront cost to the project, but that comes under the hanging sword of thirty-odd million dollars guaranteed by SunLight General Capital – Mercer County’s commercial partner in this venture. “It is [SunLight General Capital’s] obligation to pay this debt service,” said MCIA Executive Director Phil Miller.

This financial highwire act becomes more perilous when you consider the payment method that SunLight intends to use. The company has a 15 year loan to pay. For every 1,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity generated, the company earns a Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) that can be sold on SREC tracking system. As stated in the SREC Registration Program‘s website “SRECs are traded in a competitive market, the price may vary significantly. The actual price of an SREC during a trading period can and will fluctuate depending on supply and demand.”

This, of course, would make them equally valueless in the real world and even if SunLight paid the full monty with the artificially inflated bonds, the actual cost would be deferred to the tax-payers.

The project is a potential financial boondoggle, but there are actual environmental risks, they are just not the ones the community has been complaining about.

A study by ornithologist Robert McKernan, director of the San Bernardino County Museum in California, done at the Solar One farm outside of Barstow, turned up a number of local birds that had been outright incinerated when flying and a significant number of bird corpses littering the area around Solar One that had burned or singed feathers, rendering the poor animals incapable of flight while they happened to be cruising around in the sky.

Birds aren’t the only airborne wayfarers who must face the dangers of these solar death rays aimed at the sky.

A 747 is not in any danger from these plumes, but with the large number of non-commercial airports in the surrounding areas –including the one where our own aviation program students fly– charter flights and personal aircraft are constantly crossing over our West Windsor campus.

These lightweight aircraft face a significant risk when flying over a solar field. “If you hit a plume dead center, you have one wing in and one wing out of it. It would flip an airplane in a heartbeat,” said Pat Wolfe, who operated the Blythe airport in California for 20 years, in an interview with the LA Times.

And if other people’s planes being downed don’t bother you, maybe being hit by a heat seeking missile will do the trick. According to an article published by the LA Times on June 21, 2012, Major John G. Garza, representative of the Pentagon on a California renewable energy planning group, said solar farms have the possibility of attracting heat seeking missiles used during military testing. McGuire Airforce Base is 23 miles from our campus (so says Google) and they do have their own BOMARC missile site. It hasn’t been used in a while, but still, is that a chance we want to take?

Honestly, the school has enough safety concerns these days without pursuing a project that could knock their own student pilots out of the sky and potentially attract missiles. I can see The VOICE headline now: Students blown up during class, ID tags fail to protect them…again.

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