05/13/2011 12:00 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2011

New Jersey: An Unlikely Leader In U.S. Solar Energy

MONTCLAIR, New Jersey (By Ronda Kaysen) – New Jersey, home to more industrial waste clean-up sites than any other state, is poised to become an unlikely shining example to the nation on use of solar power, but not everyone is happy about it.

One of the nation's smallest and most populous states, New Jersey is not known for its sunshine -- it has five cloudy days for every three sunny days.

Yet the combination of a stringent legislative energy mandate by the state government and a generous carbon offset program has made New Jersey the nation's second largest producer of solar power, trailing only California, where more than half the days are typically sunny.

Legislation passed during former Governor Jon Corzine's administration in 2006 requires energy suppliers to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, including 2 percent from solar power.

Under its carbon offset program, New Jersey allows companies that emit greenhouse gases to buy certificates, or credits, from producers of renewable energy, giving them a source of revenue and an incentive to invest in solar power.

Photovoltaic panels, which collect the sun's energy, have sprung up on utility poles, atop parking lots and on rooftops across the state. Vacant lots, farmland and university campuses are all fair game for housing solar farms.

Recently approved legislation calls for opening access to old landfills -- 80 are located in the Pinelands National Reserve in the southern part of the state -- for renewable energy use such as solar farms.

"I used to say renewable energy is going to be the issue of the future, but I think it is the issue of now," said Democratic state Senator James Whelan, sponsor of the Pinelands legislation.

At Rutgers University, 60 percent of the Livingston campus is expected to be powered by its existing seven-acre solar farm and a new 32-acre solar canopy that will begin construction this summer and set to be completed next summer.

The new canopy system is designed to generate more than $1 million a year in electrical power, school officials say.

"That's money we would not have to pay to buy electricity," said E.J. Miranda, a university spokesperson. The Rutgers solar project has become something of an academic tourist attraction with students as far away as North Carolina paying the farm a visit.

But not everyone is warming to solar power's embrace. Critics say solar panels are ugly and that the high cost of investing in solar will simply be passed onto consumers.

Most controversial are 180,000 solar panels being attached to utility poles along quiet residential streets, part of a push by the state's largest utility company, the Public Service Electric and Gas Company, to produce enough solar power to supply 13,000 homes.

The utility's $518,000 million investment in solar energy will bump up consumer energy bills by 29 cents a month, the company said.

Just five panels, which measure 5 feet by 2.5 feet, had been installed on utility poles in the affluent community of Ridgewood before an outcry erupted. House-proud residents were so angry by the visual affront that the town forced the company to stop work, a halt repeated in three other nearby towns.

"Certainly the aesthetics are a No. 1 concern," said Thomas Riche, Ridgewood's deputy mayor.

Another concern was the possibility that the panels could interfere with fire pull boxes on the utility poles, he said.

Mayors of a handful of municipalities have sent letters protesting the panels to the state's Board of Public Utilities, which approved the program.

After a decade-long hot streak, solar energy is getting a cooler reception from Republican Governor Chris Christie. who has indicated that current renewable energy rules are too strict on businesses. He has called for the state's energy master plan to be reviewed in light of the economic downturn, a move renewable energy supporters fear could affect solar energy legislation.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)

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