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Even solar power has its detractors -- especially when fields of glass replace fields of green

Post Time:Mar 19,2012Classify:Industry NewsView:327

In theory, Jim Dauphars doesn’t have a problem with solar energy.


The ground-mounted, 30,000-panel solar site behind his Hamilton house generates property taxes and doesn’t strain the township’s infrastructure. There are no additional school kids, no need for sewer extensions or new roads that could jack up Dauphars’ taxes.

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“It’s a hundred times better than having 100 houses back there and killing Hamilton schools with even higher taxes,” he said.


But in practice, the Yardville-Allentown Road resident is less than thrilled about living next to 34 acres of wall-to-wall metal and glass, panels that are fenced in and shielded by a few half-dead pines.


“The aesthetics are horrible,” he said. “It looks like a prison fence around my yard. I don’t know who thinks this looks good, but they’re wrong.”


As more large-scale solar developments spring up across New Jersey, residents are learning how to co-exist with the rise of the solar energy industry.


While 75 percent of the state’s solar projects are installed on telephone poles, roofs or parking decks, one-quarter of all projects are ground-mounted, according to Chris Sturm, the senior director of state policy for smart growth think tank New Jersey Future.


This week, The Times spoke with several residents about what’s it like to live next to a solar site — the good, the bad, and the ugly.


Spike in solar development


Once found only on the roofs of an eco-conscious few, solar panels are now popping up on business campuses, school roofs and, increasingly, on farm fields and next to homes or neighborhoods.


There are several large ground-mounted solar sites in the Mercer County area and more in the pipeline. A few, like the Lawrenceville School’s 25,000-panel project scheduled to be switched on next month, are used to offset the energy costs of an institution. The 6.1 megawatt project, located on 30 acres of farmland owned by the school, will eventually produce up to 90 percent of the school’s electricity.


Located behind the school’s golf course and set back from Route 206 by 1,200 feet, the project sits on farmland previously leased out to grow soybeans. The school owns 268 acres of farmland in that area and the panels, which slope downward, are virtually secluded from roads and nearby neighbors and have drawn few, if any, complaints.


But other projects, specifically three in Hamilton, have drawn fierce opposition from neighbors and environmental groups reluctant to see large swaths of open space turned into small power plants.


Two projects, PSE&G’s site off South Broad Street and Hartz Mountain’s 60-acre property off Yardville-Allentown Road, behind Dauphars’ house, have been turned on, and a third, a project proposed off Crosswicks-Hamilton Square Road, has been slowly working its way through a series of zoning board hearings for the necessary approvals. East Windsor has two pending applications for utility-scale solar projects on dozens of acres of land now used for farming.


Not in my backyard?


At numerous solar hearings over the last two years, residents have railed against imagined disruptions to their neighborhoods, raising the usual hue and cry about property values and aesthetics, noise levels and the possibility of painful glares.


“As these solar power plants get to be very large, people are more concerned about visual impact,” said Lyle Rawlings, president and CEO of Flemington-based solar company


Advanced Solar Products and vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association trade group. His company built the McGraw-Hill solar project in East Windsor, one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere.


“It’s no different from concerns when an office building is going to be built, or a store, or just about anything else,” he said. “When you take what was an open field or a pretty meadow and put anything else on it that’s man-made, there are going to be people who feel sorry for the loss of the natural view they had.”


Even residents admit the complaining does smack of typical not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) protests.


“I struggled with NIMBY syndrome, because energy is critical to the economy and social welfare of the community,” said Scott McNear, resident of South Broad Street in Hamilton who lobbied against PSE&G’s plan to turn land that had been covered in corn and soybeans into a solar substation next to his home.


McNear said the low hum emitted by converter boxes next to the panels hasn’t created the cacophony neighbors feared, and the glare that sometimes spills into his house on mornings is annoying, but easy enough to ignore.


But neighbors have gone back and forth with PSE&G and the township over the site’s appearance, with the township going so far as to plant extra trees to shield the property after neighbors complained about gaps and dead trees.


And concerns persist that the industrial look of the site could lower surrounding property values.


“I look out and feel frustration that open space that was farmland is now dedicated to a glass field,” McNear said.


John O’Brien, who lives across the street from the site, said the farmland across from his house was a selling point when he first bought it years ago.


“It’s a shame that they’ve done that — that was one of the main reasons I bought this thing, the nice, open land over there,” he said. “We used to see deer and everything else over there, foxes, and nothing now. We don’t even get squirrels.”


Others, like Wilma Facey, who lives across the street from the Hartz Mountain property on Yardville-Allentown Road, have accepted the new development without complaint.


“It’s better than housing and it’s not bothering us at all,” she said. “We feel it’s a good location for it, really.”


Solar developers do face growing pressure from everyone from the governor to environmentalists to place panels on brownfields, rooftops and other out-of-the-way locales instead of farmland or residential neighborhoods, Rawlings said. The sputtering market for solar credits means it’s also in a developer’s best interest to limit the sprawl of large-scale projects.


“The solar community is reluctantly coming to terms with that and realizing we have to limit how much we build,” Rawlings said.


The potential to check solar sprawl doesn’t necessarily mean much for McNear and others living next to sites that could remain active for the next 15 or 20 years.


“But that’s the cost of progress,” McNear said. “It’s there, so live with it.”

Source: www.nj.comAuthor: shangyi

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