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

July 6th, 2011 by

  • 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 of Solar Facilities

Solar Panel

Solar Panel: Image Source: Flickr User Spanginator

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.

This issue of Future Facts was based on research conducted by Jedediah Drolet. If you have any questions, please contact Senior Director of State Policy Chris Sturm  (csturmatnjfuturedotorg)  .

Read more about New Jersey Future’s work, or become a member. For more information, please contact Dan Fatton  (dfattonatnjfuturedotorg)   at 609-393-0008 ext. 105.

8 Responses to “New Jersey’s Solar Ambitions Raise Difficult Land-Use Issues”

  1. Joe says:

    Don’t forget parking lots. Would provide shade and shelter for users.

    • Chris Sturm says:

      Absolutely. I just saw a solar canopy on the top of a parking garage for the first time last Tuesday. It was 95 degrees and the shade was nice! I’d put parking canopies in the same category as rooftops in terms of impacts.

  2. Creigh Rahenkamp says:

    Your cautions about using land extensively are very thoughtful and well taken. In practice, I think we have not given enough thought to solar fields as essentially temporary/holding/interim uses (at less than utility scale). For brownfields, it is a very useful use while the years of monitoring and groundwater treatment occur, awaiting the future productive use. In growth areas, it is a way to keep land productive until the market changes, to keep land from being consumed in low density development to avoid carrying it. The relatively short capital life of the installations is an important part of the story.

    I’m also concerned that you would include a line about “visual impairment”. The notion that seeing something can ruin your day has had way too much influence in local zoning standards on too many issues. Let’s not encourage snobbery as a reason to heat the planet.

    • Chris Sturm says:

      Craig, you raise a good point about solar as a potentially beneficial temporary use. I know that some local governments are requiring installers to provide a decommissioning fund. We need to have a better handle on what the useful life is (as well as the payback period), and whether there are any impacts that might hamper future uses. For example, can a solar installation degrade farmland through soil compaction or other factors, or not? Welcome additional insights…

  3. Suzy Hess says:

    I’m an Environmental Commission member for the Township of Raritan, Hunterdon County, NJ.

    Since January of this year, Raritan Township’s Environmental Commission has reviewed five (5) new applications for solar farms. Our Township does not have a Solar Ordinance in effect – but we are trying to get one adopted asap.

    Any guidance NJ Future can provide on model Solar Ordinances, setback requirements, etc. for new solar farms in NJ would be greatly appreciated.

    Suzy Hess

    • James E. Colby says:

      Check out Pittsgrove Township, Salem County. They have a website. They have amended Chapter 60 via an Ordinance No: 3-2010 I believe that the Ordinance is posted and available for downloading.

      If its not available for downloading, call Ms. Connie Garton at 856-358-3722 and one will be mailed to you.

      Disclosure: I am not employed nor connected to the Township in any way.

    • Chris Sturm says:

      Suzy, Unfortunately, I cannot help you, but I can refer you to a few folks who have worked on this issue and may be able to provide model ordinances, in addition to the one in Pittsgrove, which James Colby recommends. Ed Fox, Burlington County planner (efoxatcodotburlingtondotnjdotus) has drafted an ordinance as has Lisa Specca at Clarke, Caton Hintz (lspeccaatcchnjdotcom. You should also contact Cheryl Reardon at ANJEC (anjecdotcherylatgmaildotcom) who can direct you to others. New Jersey Future has proposed a panel session on local planning and regulations for solar for the November APA/NJ conference, so keep an lookout for that as well. Good luck! Chris

  4. SolarUniverseCal says:

    Solar power is really the only way to go. We all need to do our part to spread the word. It’s just about getting the word out that solar and going green takes “just about the same effort”.

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