Solar Farms in the City0

Celia Colista | Fri Nov 11 2011

Solar farms produce clean and sustainable energy, but they require a resource that’s at a premium in most cities: space.

Does that mean solar is nothing more than a California dream for a place like the Northeast? New Jersey doesn’t think so. The state has mandated that by 2021, 23 percent of its electricity must come from renewable resources.

Utility PSE&G has responded with a $515 million investment that takes solar energy to the streets. In addition to conventional rooftop and industrial site installations, the power provider is mounting up to 200,000 solar panels on its own utility poles. Each 5-foot-by-2.5-foot solar panel generates about 230 watts of electricity, which feed into the main power grid.

Solar is great, but…

Marc Wesson, a Jersey City homeowner, says he “went ballistic” when he first spotted the large panels in his historically preserved neighborhood.

“We are so restricted (by city ordinances) as to what color we can paint our house, and here we are with PSE&G putting these horrific-looking things up in front of historic homes,” Wesson said.

Wesson isn’t alone. Similar complaints in suburban Bergen County temporarily halted installations last spring. One holdout—Wyckoff—is still fighting the panels, but PSE&G is in talks with town leaders and “remains committed” to finishing the job, according to spokesman Fran Sullivan.

You just plug it in, and it starts working.

New Jersey’s plan is the first of its kind and by far the largest, but small pilot programs are underway in Orlando, Florida and Kauai, Hawaii.

“We’ve been pretty impressed with them,” said Jennifer Szaro of the Orlando Utilities Commission. Because the units, designed by New Jersey developer Petra Solar, communicate with the utility, any outages are quickly identified—right down to which pole houses a damaged panel. “It’s like a little computer. You just plug it in, and it starts working.”

But Orlando Utilities probably won’t buy more than the few panels it already installed. Unlike PSE&G, the Florida utility is municipally owned and isn’t eligible for federal tax rebates that make large-scale projects affordable.

Whether New Jersey’s example will catch on remains to be seen. At the very least industry experts and communities across the country are watching to see if taking solar to the streets pays off.