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New Jersey solar farm plans raise concerns

Kevin Skudera of Colts Neck envisions a bright future for Brickyard Farm: He recently submitted an application to Howell Zoning Board to build a 15,000-panel solar project on the 161-acre property he owns on Birdsall Road.

Skudera says the farm stands to make about $500,000 a year on the $10 million, 10-acre, two-megawatt system. Most of that would be made through solar renewable energy certificates and energy sales; the project could power nearly 1,000 homes, he said.

“When you’re growing corn or hay you’re lucky to make a couple hundred dollars net profit on an acre,” Skudera said. “Solar would be extremely more profitable than growing a commodity the energy itself is a true commodity.”

He’s not alone in believing renewable energy could be some farmers’ next big crop. But as the number of renewable energy projects increase in New Jersey, so do preservationists’ concerns those projects could steamroll over the Garden State’s remaining farmland.

“We’re losing farmland that could certainly be viable and has been viable, because of something else that has reared its ugly head – the solar farms,” said John Costigan, Howell’s Preservation Task Force chairman. He said at least one other township farm that had been interested in preservation is now turning to solar. “It’s industrial solar plating. It’s going to be gravel roads going down that farmland (in order for workers to deal) with the solar plates; they’re going to rip up that land and I don’t know how we’re going to get it back to (being) farmland.”

Spurred by a soft development market, limited preservation dollars and a tough economy, renewable energy projects are popping up on farms all over the state. Two of those farm-turned-commercial projects Seabrook Farms and tomato grower AgMart Produce, known as Santa Sweets, both in Cumberland County, alone would generate a total of five megawatts of clean energy. A 100-acre, 20-megawatt, 71,700-panel Con Edison Development solar project on a farm in Pilesgrove Township, Salem County, is expected to power 5,100 homes.

“You’re not going to be subject to the weather variability, the crop failure,” said Pamela Frank of the Sun Farm Network, a Flemington solar company, about the attractiveness of renewable energy to farmers. “Solar panels don’t get salmonella.”

As of April, 57 New Jersey farms have turned to solar projects and five to wind turbines to save on energy costs or turn a profit. The figure doesn’t include the thousands of acres being optioned by developers, or many of the former farms now identified as commercial projects, according to the state Board of Public Utilities.

“We support solar on farms to meet the farm’s energy needs, but increasingly we’re seeing a number of grid-scale, or large-scale solar energy projects on farmland or proposed on farmland that altogether could take thousands of acres out of production. So, yes, that’s a concern,” State Agriculture Development Committee spokeswoman Hope Gruzlovic said.

Preserving the state’s farmland is critical to maintaining easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, retaining productive and scenic lands, and preserving a billion-dollar state industry, Gruzlovic said. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, New Jersey had 733,450 acres of farmland in 2007, the last time that inventory was taken, down from 856,909 in 1997, Gruzlovic said.

Meanwhile, two bills making their way through the Legislature haven’t helped preservationists’ worries. Both as proposed could loosen local and State Agricultural Development Committee oversight and raise energy-production caps for wind turbine applications on farmland.

“We (New Jersey) do have a requirement that 22.5 percent of our total energy should come from renewable sources like solar and wind,” said Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, D-Somerset, a bill sponsor. “The idea here is where there is wind, and if (landowners are) willing to invest, we should go with it. This is going to help, by increments, to meet that requirement.

“If you put a wind turbine in the middle of a neighborhood people will complain about the noise,” Chivukula said, adding clean, green energy systems are preferable to housing or retail development. “And the amount of space a wind (turbine) takes is very minimal.”

Matt Blake, American Littoral Society Delaware Bay project manager, said his main concern is parts of the bills that would loosen reins on farms the government and New Jersey taxpayers already have paid $1 billion to preserve.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Blake said. “We have more acreage in rooftops and pavement in New Jersey than forests. Why aren’t we putting (renewable energy projects) there (first)?

“It’s this great land rush,” Blake said. “We’re seeing more applications, more acres involved in this kind of land use than we ever did before, even at the height of the development boom, and that’s scary.”

Chivukula and state Sen. Robert Smith, D-Middlesex, another green-energy bill sponsor, said their measures are works in progress and amendments are expected.

Jim Passerello, owner of Passerello Farm with his wife Mary in Flemington, Hunterdon County, said it’s “probably a shame” to see the state’s farmland evaporate but he supported farmers’ rights to make the best financial decisions for their businesses. The grain and hay farmer mounted $113,000 in solar panels, largely paid for with now-suspended state solar rebates, to eliminate a $5,000 annual electric bill.

“I think farmers are always involved with green ways of doing things – that makes wind power, solar power very attractive to farmers in particular as opposed to the general population,” Passerello said. “In an ideal world, you could pick and choose and plant crops where they’ll grow the best and put crops where they don’t grow very well. But it’s individual ownership, and they have the liberty to do what they need to do.”

Still, Passerello and others are skeptical about whether the concerns about a trend are warranted. As utility companies, such as Public Service Electric & Gas, continue to build more of their own solar projects, there will be less need to pay farmers to house solar on their properties, he said.

Skudera of Colts Neck noted many farmers don’t have the financial resources needed to complete an expensive renewable energy project on their own. Talk of cutting renewable energy funding continues among Republicans at the federal level.

“My personal opinion is if the government needs to pay people to put this stuff up, it can’t stand alone on its own,” Spyro Martin of Lacey said.

Martin installed a $160,000, 120-foot, wind turbine on his Lacey farm last year. Blades of the turbine, made by Enertech of Kansas and installed by Skylands Renewable Energy of Hampton, Hunterdon County, cracked shortly after they were installed. Martin said he’s now waiting for replacement equipment.

“I’m not saying that the technology might not be there one day, but as of right now, I don’t know if the technology justifies the investment,” Martin said.