Op-Ed: ‘Blue holes’ offer New Jersey unique opportunity for solar development

Former sand-mining sites are singularly suited to reuse for the development of solar power on a large scale
Renee Blizzard

Look at a satellite map of South Jersey. Scattered through the dense greenery, pines and patchwork of farmland, you will find spots of bright blue water surrounded by sand. Beyond simply a mildly interesting part of the landscape, these “blue holes” are evidence of one of New Jersey’s oldest industries: sand and gravel mining.

New Jersey has centuries of mining history, resulting in space that has served its use as a source of sand and other materials. Recycling of these mines presents a unique opportunity for new, large-scale solar development. We have the chance for productive reuse of underutilized industrial property for cost-efficient solar energy without chewing up any of New Jersey’s prized and diminishing open space.

Many megawatts of renewable solar energy can be installed in these areas as ground-mounted solar arrays on the sand surface of mining pits or as floating solar arrays on sites filled with water. These sites should be made a priority in the state’s strategy to expand renewable energy.

New Jersey’s goal for expanding renewable energy sources is laudable, bold, and necessary: requiring 35% of energy sold in the state to be from renewable energy sources by 2025; 50% by 2030, and 100% clean energy by 2050. To meet these goals the state must embrace innovative solar technology and find the right approach to scaling up solar in an affordable way, adhering to land-use policies and protecting forests, farmlands, and open spaces.

Placing solar-energy projects on mining sites delivers on all the right priorities for New Jersey:

  • Solar on mining sites is an innovative reuse of industrial properties;
  • Mining sites have existing electrical infrastructure which can decrease the cost to develop solar on these properties;
  • Mining sites can support multimegawatt projects, providing cost efficiencies and helping the state reach its solar goals at lesser cost;
  • These are large projects that do not encroach on valuable open space;
  • Linking these projects with community solar projects compounds these benefits — many of the rural communities that surround these sites can benefit from low-cost, locally produced community solar;
  • These large-scale solar projects provide good union jobs and drive more economic activity.

Speaking from experience

I have a unique perspective on the significance of the opportunity. First, as a former mayor of Downe Township, I can tell you the value of such projects to the residents of Cumberland County, where many mining sites are located.

Of all counties in New Jersey, Cumberland County is ranked lowest by per-capita income. As of July 2020, the county has a disturbingly high unemployment rate of 14.6%.

In the name of environmental justice, developing these “blue holes” into solar projects represents an overdue opportunity for these residents. They should have a slice of the green-energy economy pie — the union jobs, economic development, and the direct benefits of locally produced low-cost solar energy. Siting solar near these communities gives our county a piece of that pie.

Second, as a member of a farming family, I know the value of open space and agricultural land. Recycling mining sites for solar development preserves our valuable open spaces and prime soils. We need to take advantage of this “low-hanging fruit,” which can help deliver lower-cost solar energy on the scale we need today.

Third, as a mining-site owner, I know that these properties have two key ingredients for solar development. There’s a preexisting robust electrical infrastructure for interconnection and solar is a permitted use in an industrially zoned area. The biggest challenges to developing solar in New Jersey are siting and interconnection. Putting solar on a mining site handily eliminates these two barriers.

These “blue holes” can help New Jersey achieve its greenhouse-gas reductions and environmental goals at lower cost and without chewing up more of our beloved open space. I urge the governor and the state Board of Public Utilities to prioritize this winning strategy.