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Big Solar Project Poses Test for Small Town

Upper Pittsgrove ponders the benefits and drawbacks of a 74.6-megawatt solar farm consisting of 250,000 photovoltaic panels on 92 acres.

Ed Stella always has done things on a grand scale, whether growing sweet corn on his farm in Upper Pittsgrove, running a composting operation or a heading up a land-clearing business.

So maybe it isn’t much of a surprise that he decided to turn 512 acres of his agricultural land into New Jersey’s biggest solar development project, dwarfing anything else that has been built in a state behind only California in the number of solar installations.

"He does everything in a big way," says Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, who has been working with local agricultural officials in the Salem County township better known for being a farming community than for anything else.

Project's Size Splits Town

The project is being developed by Atlantic Green Power, a company Stella helped found. It plans to build a 74.6-megawatt solar farm, consisting of 250,000 photovoltaic panels on about 92 acres of the 512-acre parcel. By comparison, the biggest solar facility in the region is 3 megawatts in neighboring Pennsylvania, said Paula DuPont Kidd, a spokeswoman for the PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid. The Atlantic Green project would produce enough electricity to supply nearly 15,000 homes.

Credit: AGP
Atlantic Green Power's proposed solar farm would replace about 92 acres (shown in red) of what is now mostly farmland.

The sheer scale of the project has pretty much divided the rural community of 3,400 people, according to Mayor Jack Cimprich. It faces its first hurdle Thursday night when the Planning Board meets to consider the applicant’s request for a variance.

“You’ve got competing values,” said the mayor, who has a solar installation on his own home. “On the one hand, people like the town just the way it is. But some farmers say they’d prefer to see solar panels on the land than to see it developed.”

The project also has split environmental organizations. Sandy Batty, executive director of the Association of Environmental Commissions, is opposing the project because it is removing prime agricultural land from farming use.

“We’re all in favor of solar,” Batty said, “but we believe there are just so many corporate lawns, brownfields, and warehouse roofs where these projects ought to go first.”

But Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, wrote a letter to the local planning board supporting the project, saying the solar development offers farmers an alternative to selling their land to developers.

Stella has pledged to deed-restrict his land for agricultural use; if the project does not get off the ground or the panels are removed, the property would go back to farming, Cimprich noted.

If the project moves forward, it could prove lucrative to Stella, who could not be reached for comment. According to documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission, his lease with Atlantic Green Power, which is based in West Atlantic City, calls for an upfront payment of $7.5 million and a monthly rent of $1.3 million.

'Harvesting the Sun'

Asked why the project is being developed in such a rural area, Rania Pontikos, director of technology and strategic planning for the company, replied, “We are a solar farm; we are harvesting the sun.” The project is expected to cost upwards of $200 million, she added.

The company has filed applications with the PJM for approval to link to the power grid, which Pontikos said will involve tying into the distribution lines of Atlantic City Electric, the local utility. By connecting with the utility’s distribution system, Atlantic Green Power will be eligible to earn solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs), which are awarded to owners of solar systems for the electricity the projects generate.

Atlantic Green also met this week with new Board of Public Utilities President Lee Solomon, who also toured the project site, Pontikos said. She said he is enthusiastic about the proposal given the state’s aggressive goals for increasing its reliance on solar power.

Still, the project might stir concern among some solar businesses in New Jersey, particularly the smaller companies specializing in installations for homes and small businesses. Their business models rely heavily on the SRECs to be profitable.

Under legislation passed in the lame-duck session, the state ramped up the number of solar systems to installed in New Jersey each year but set a cap on SRECs. If the Atlantic Green project went forward next year, it could swallow up the entire 68 megawatts of SRECs established under the bill.

Pontikos downplayed the issue. “We are not a threat to them. They are not a threat to us,” she said, noting that the state's requirements for clean energy are so great that it will require every type of solar producer to participate in the program.

It also remains to be seen whether such a large-scale project will ever be completed.

“These are rookies, first-time developers in the solar field,” Furey said, pointing out that the economics of the project are uncertain. “It may get off the ground, but, if it does, it will be an accidental birth.”

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