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Signs of NJ’s Energy Future Rise on Site of Industrial Past

PSE&G converting once-contaminated location of coal-gas facility into 1.3-megawatt solar farm.

The lot of more than five acres in a gritty section of Trenton may seem an unlikely location for one of the largest solar farms in New Jersey, but then again it makes sense given its history.

On a street lined with row-houses, Public Service Electric & Gas is converting an old coal-gas manufacturing facility that once provided gas for streetlights and home-heating in the neighborhood into a 1.3-megawatt solar farm, producing enough electricity to power about 207 residences.

Credit: PSE&G
Work is under way on the 1.3-megawatt solar farm in Trenton.

The project is part of the Newark utility’s ambitious $750 million investment into solar energy, an outlay that is almost impossible to miss as you drive around New Jersey. PSE&G already has installed more than 40,000 solar panels on its utility poles and plans to put up 160,000 by the end of 2013, a project that will provide another 40 megawatts of solar power to New Jersey homes and businesses.

If the state is going to achieve aggressive targets to increase its use of solar power to meet energy needs, PSE&G will probably play a critical role. Last year, state regulators approved a half-billion dollar program proposed by the utility to install 80 megawatts of solar, a goal that would nearly double the size of the state’s solar capacity.

The program, dubbed Solar 4 All, includes the installation of solar panels on utility poles in the state’s six largest cities and about 300 towns. Another 30 megawatts of electricity from solar panels are expected to be generated from 20 projects similar in size to the one under construction on Trenton’s Brunswick Street.

The site is one of four solar farms under way on PSE&G-owned properties in Hamilton, Linden and Edison, according to Al Matos, vice president of renewable and energy solutions for the utility. The Linden and Edison sites are former brown-fields, which are contaminated properties being returned to use after lying fallow for years.

“We are giving new life to a once-contaminated site,” Matos said. “By reclaiming it, we are helping to improve the neighborhood and provide New Jersey’s capital city with a productive and beneficial asset.”

The Trenton site was occupied by one of the oldest coal-gas manufacturing facilities in the nation, which burned coal at high temperatures to produce gas for lights and heating. But the process also produced toxic coal tar, some of which was dumped on the site.

PSE&G spent $20 million cleaning up the lot, said Rich Blackman, project manager for dealing with the 38 coal-gas sites over which the utility has responsibility. Most of that expense went to removing 150,000 tons of contaminated soil, Blackman said.

The utility’s decision to invest heavily into solar is driven by three key factors, Matos said. First, the company is strongly supporting the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by moving to cleaner forms of producing electricity. Second, the utility believes solar power is critical to improving the nation’s energy security, and third, that it can be an effective growth engine in revitalizing the state’s economy.

The four solar farms under construction by PSE&G, Matos noted, are expected to create 150 new construction jobs .

In addition to the Solar 4 All program, the utility is also spending roughly $200 million to help homeowners and businesses finance their own solar installations, according to Matos. More than 110 projects already have been financed and another 250 are in the pipeline, he said.

While some critics have questioned whether the state can afford the higher cost of solar power, Matos said the utility has seen the cost of solar drop 30 percent since last September. It projects the cost of its solar investments will add just 10 cents a month to the typical resident’s bill.

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