By: John Liccardo
On July 24, 2012, in conjunction with the U. S. Department of Energy, the U. S. Department of the Interior released a report on the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Study. This established a preliminary set of 17 Solar Energy Zones and outlined the process for industry, the public and other interested parties to develop new zones.
During a March 21, 2012 visit to a Nevada photovoltaic in Bolder City, President Obama, a proponent of renewable energy, said “This (solar energy) is an industry on the rise. It’s a source of energy that’s becoming cheaper. And more and more businesses are starting to take notice.
“If these people (opponents/critics to solar energy) were around when Columbus set sail, they’d be charter members of the Flat Earth Society.”
Former NJ Governor Jon Corzine had set a goal of New Jersey requiring 30 percent of the State’s electricity to be from renewable energy sources by 2021. Governor Chris Christie wants New Jersey to achieve a similar goal of 22.5 percent within the same time-frame.
For more than a year, Public Service Electric and Gas Company, New Jersey’s largest utility, has been building solar farms similar to that currently under construction at MCCC. This activity has been undertaken in response to the above State mandated goals. At this point in time, New Jersey is second only to California in the installation of solar panels.
MCCC’s President, Dr. Patricia Donohue, in her May 21, 2012 open letter to the community printed in The College Voice, was even more enthusiastic than the President, stating, “The environmental benefits are beyond question…The electricity generated is equivalent to what’s needed to power over 850 homes annually.”
When interviewed on February 22, 2013, Dr. Donohue reaffirmed her previous emphatic stance in regards to the solar farm. She also said that the college had been investigating the possibility of developing a source of renewable energy even before her tenure at the school.
Donohue added that planning for the current solar farm had been going on for about two years before any definitive action was taken and this proposal had been submitted to all required governmental and environmental reviews. Dr. Donohue asserted that the use of solar panels was discussed during meetings that were open to the public before construction began, rejecting the complaints of several of those area residents who were involved in the attempt to have the courts stop the project.
In addition to stressing the fact that the solar farm would not produce any air, noise or light pollution, Dr. Donohue declared that the financial benefits were an additional positive factor. She said that the farm would provide about 70 percent of the West Windsor Campus’s energy needs and would result in a savings of about $750,000.00 yearly. This is so large a sum that it would certainly help to stabilize the college’s financial needs, in her view. Dr. Donohue said that, while the somewhat complicated financial arrangement utilizing solar renewable energy credits (SREC’s) could potentially represent some financial risk if Sunlight General Capital were to default, she was certain that the Mercer County officials had a number of safeguards in place to prevent even this remote potential drawback.
In response to an inquiry about the decision to develop a solar farm versus installation on the roof tops of the college buildings, Dr. Donohue explained that in order to utilize that approach, the roofs on the college buildings must be relatively free of any obstruction (e.g. air conditioners, other vents, machinery) and be in such good condition so as not to need repair/replacement for about 15 years, the average life span of a solar panel. MCCC’s roofs met neither requirement because of their age and the types of impediments located on them. (See photo of Monmouth University’s rooftops where they did use this approach.)
When questioned about the most frequent complaint raised by local residents, Dr.
Donohue said that there is a plan to place fences and vegetation in most areas which should help to improve the visual impact of the panels. She concluded by noting that when the trees and other plants were removed prior to construction, an inventory of the various types was taken so that those varieties most affected would be replaced.
In addition to the environmental and financial pluses, Dr. Donohue stressed her belief that there were definite educational benefits for MCCC students. In her view, Solar Energy technology, Engineering Science and the newly established (Fall 2012) Sustainability program will definitely benefit. She concluded by noting that the Horticultural students will be involved with selecting and replacing new trees and other vegetation. This was another example of student educational opportunities.
Jenna Pizzi, in her September 6, 2012 article in The Times of Trenton, said that a group of West Windsor residents filed a law suit in August 22, 2012 to attempt to halt the solar farm project. From the perspective of those interested parties, the project could represent a detriment to the value of their properties as well as cause some environmental damage. Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson reached a decision on September 20, 2012.
The judge declared that they had been given an opportunity to voice their concerns at several earlier meetings and said that the Mercer County Planning Board was the ultimate decision maker in this case. She said that, while the residents may have raised legitimate concerns in regards to the negative impact on their properties, as a judge, she had to consider what was best for the greater public, rather than this small community of neighbors.
It would appear that residents of the West Windsor Community were not atypical in their reaction to similar projects throughout the state. New York Times reporter, Mireya Navarro said in her April 27, 2011 article that a number of residents in Oradell, New Jersey had similar concerns/complaints in regards to solar panels appearing on lamp poles in their area. They viewed them as “eyesores” with some residents adding that the overhanging panels were “ugly” and “hideous.” They also expressed concerns about property values.
Tom Clark, a 19 year old and a digital film student said, “Great idea! I think it’s important to get our energy from various sources. You can’t focus on just one way of doing things.” He then expressed his belief that this will ultimately benefit the college and ended by expressing his hopes that the college would be able to restore some of the trees which had been removed to accommodate the solar farm.
A first year music major, 19 year old A.J. Mostrangeli, focused his attention on the potential financial advantages the solar panel farm could bring to MCCC. “I think it’s a good thing. The more money saved on energy, the more that can be invested in education.”
A recently released document from the Department of Energy (Progressive Energy Impact State [PEIS] ) included certain environmental changes which could have potentially negative impact on soil, water and air resources. However, these were relatively minor when compared to the known problems with fossil fuels.
Ornithologist, Robert McKernan, was quoted in a July 21, 2012 article in the Los Angeles Times saying that the reflected heat generated by solar fields can be a potential danger to birds. His research indicated that some birds had been seriously injured or killed (by incineration) when flying over large solar installations.
Eyesore or panacea, the construction of the solar farm on Mercer’s campus and similar projects around NJ have proven to create controversy along with renewable energy.