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New Jersey's Newest Solar Farm Is a Real Dump

Tom Johnson | May 9, 2012

Large-scale solar project built on former landfill in Meadowlands produces enough power for up to 500 homes.

The former Kearny garbage dump is a 66-acre plot of land, fallow for more than three decades, although practically within shouting distance of some of the most expensive real estate in the nation, with a bird’s eye view of the Manhattan skyline.

Today, it may be emblematic of a new chapter in New Jersey’s development, as Public Service Electric & Gas and others yesterday dedicated a new 3-megawatt solar farm on 13 acres of the former landfill, producing enough electricity to power up to 500 homes.

The $17.8 million solar farm project, a joint effort between PSE&G, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, and SunDurance Energy, an Edison-based solar developer, is the first solar project built on a state-owned landfill.

The project also lends credence to the Christie administration’s Energy Master Plan, which recommends that large-scale solar projects be developed on old landfills or brownfields, instead of open space and farmlands.

"These landfills have sat dormant for years, and have been a familiar site to northern New Jersey residents for as long as I can remember," said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of the state’s largest utility. "This project updates that story, showing how 21st century technology coupled with public-private partnership can return even the most unusable space to a productive purpose."

New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Bob Hanna agreed, noting the governor has made it very clear that large-scale solar projects be directed to landfills and brownfield.

"These sorts of sites, however, pose challenges," Hanna said. "This project shows it can be done."

The dump, dubbed the NJMC 1A Landfill, is surrounded by the wetlands and marshlands that once permeated the area, as well as the Northeast Corridor Rail Line, New Jersey Turnpike, and the Pulaski Skyway. The conversion of the onetime landfill to a solar farm suggests that the engineering and legal hurdles hindering such projects can be overcome.

In this case, the project also benefitted from the closing of the dump more than three decades ago, a fact that allowed the waste there to settle and make the facility more stable, according to officials.

Not that the Kearny site did not pose any challenges. Before the 12,500 solar panels could be installed, the utility and developer had to haul in 1,500 truckloads of fill to layer the top of the landfill, a step utility officials described as the most challenging part of the project.

The project also benefitted from an $8.5 million grant from the federal stimulus program through the BPU. PSE&G also contributed $9.3 billion to the project, as well as paying the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission another $4 million in lease payments for putting the solar arrays on the dump.

LaRossa said ratepayers also should benefit because the utility will return money the solar system makes from the energy it produces; the capacity payments it earns; the solar renewable energy credits it earns from the electricity the system produces; and federal tax credits for renewable energy facilities.

Utility officials said it is difficult to project how much consumers will benefit because of the uncertainty surrounding energy prices, capacity payments, and solar credits. PSE&G officials said they are ready to invest more capital into similar projects. "We have the capital we want to use," said LaRossa, saying it will depend upon what policies state officials adopt.

PSE&G also has been aggressive in building solar arrays on brownfields, having already developed systems on former sites where coal gas was manufactured in Trenton, Edison, and Linden.

Those policies are under review by both the BPU and the state legislature. Because New Jersey has been so successful in developing solar systems, second only to California, the price of solar credits has dropped dramatically. Legislators and administration officials are in discussions on how to halt the slide, with the primary focus on accelerating how much solar energy must be purchased by electricity suppliers.

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