Sprawl’s Silver Lining: Rooftop Solar Power

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

If there is any silver lining to the cloud of sprawl that has spread its shadow across this state we live in, it may be this: New Jersey has an abundance of rooftops on which to mount solar panels!

If you have ever flown over New Jersey on your way into or out of Newark Liberty Airport, you’ve seen acres upon acres of nice, flat roofs that cry out for solar panels!  Even pitched residential roofs can pitch in and generate clean, solar energy.  And the good news is: if it’s your roof, it will save you money on your monthly energy bill.

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New Jersey’s biggest rooftop solar panel system (at over 20,000 panels) was completed earlier this year at Hall’s Warehouse Corporation’s 1,700,000 square foot frozen food storage building in South Plainfield.  The system is a cooperative project between Hall’s and an energy supplier who operates the system.

But New Jersey already has a track record of solar-powered success stories.  In 2005, the Toms River Regional School District was one of only three districts that took advantage of incentive programs to install solar systems.

The $19.8 million project cost was offset by almost $8 million in state grants and rebates.  It produced 2.59 million kilowatt-hours of electricity (enough to power 234 homes), and reduced the district electric bill by almost $483,000 over the previous year.  Combined with the roughly 10 percent increase in the cost of electricity, district officials estimate the annual savings to be closer to $700,000.  Factor in programs that allow the district to sell renewable energy and carbon offset credits and the potential exists for even more savings.

These kinds of numbers have the free market taking notice.  Even notoriously un-green segments of the economy, like big box retails chains, have been installing solar panels on their big, boxy roofs.  By August 2008, for example, 43 Kohl’s stores sported solar systems, as well as 18 Macy’s stores and 17 Wal-Marts – just to name a few.

Retailers are racing to take advantage of federal tax breaks for renewable energy systems.  But New Jersey also offers several state incentives, including a recently enacted property tax exemption on the systems, a solar rebate program and subsidies for residential solar energy projects as well.

Most of New Jersey’s environmental and conservation groups fully support solar and other forms of renewable energy.  But like anything else, we need to be smart about how we do it.  Energy conservation is still the best method for providing ‘cleaner’ energy; after all, what’s cleaner that not producing the pollution in the first place?

But if more capacity is still needed, maybe a few big, new power plants aren’t the best solution.  Maybe thousands of small power plants – solar panels on residential and commercial rooftops, abandoned shopping centers, industrial areas, and brownfields – would provide greater benefits with less environmental impact.

As the sun is shining this summer, it may get you thinking about the benefits of having your own solar power system.  New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program has everything you need to get started learning about the costs, benefits and incentive available: 1-866-NJSMART or www.njcleanenergy.com.  Take some time to click around their website and you can find more New Jersey success stories as well as tools and resources for calculating your potential savings, and lists of residential or commercial solar energy system installers.

I hope you’ll contact me at info@njconservation.org, or visit NJCF’s website at www.njconservation.org, for more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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