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Making New Jersey Brownfield Sites Into Solar Farms Could Create Jobs

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Governor Chris Christie attends and speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the PSE&G renewable energy solar farm in Hackensack, N.J. on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
Governor Chris Christie attends and speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the PSE&G renewable energy solar farm in Hackensack, N.J. on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.

Even in the mad-dash world of New Jersey real estate there is one kind of site no one will touch: a formerly toxic waste dump next to a prison.

But on Tuesday, a remediated 6-acre lot that was once home to a gas manufacturing plant was host to an unusual development. Gov. Chris Christie and officials from site owner Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G) attended the groundbreaking of a new solar farm that should eventually provide enough power for more than 200 homes.

The Hackensack Solar Farm, as it's called, is one of a new generation of small-scale solar farms on brownfield sites. Turning landfills, factories and other abandoned leftovers of industry into solar farms has environmental benefits and symbolic resonance for utilities like PSE&G. But at a time when unemployment numbers are desperately high, it could also mean jobs: cleaning up waste sites is one of the most efficient way to put people to work quickly, and solar plants require labor for production, installation, and maintenance.

"This is the perfect use for this site," said Paul Rosengren, a spokesman for the utility.

It had already been remediated over the past 10 years, but just a few weeks after getting all the right permits, said Rosengren, he watched in amazement as workers started pounding stanchions to support the panels into the ground. "It's putting people to work, quick."

The Hackensack site was made possible by New Jersey's strong laws favoring solar development.

Utilities must buy at least some solar energy and solar renewable energy credits tracked by the state can be traded. Both created a demand and market, but in recent months prices for those credits plummeted by 80 percent because of overproduction and, critics argue, Christie's decision to pull the state out of a northeast cap-and-trade program, harming demand.

So on July 23, Christie signed into law a bill intended to revive the state's solar enterprise, which according to industry estimates supports 10,000 jobs.

One part of that law was specifically aimed at brownfield sites. The solar industry will now be forced to jump through fewer permitting hoops to get energy farms up and running. Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency is also pushing for more renewable energy on top of cleaned-up waste sites. The agency already has identified about 15 million acres of contaminated land that could possibly host solar, wind, or other environmentally friendly energy sources.

The Garden State, said Rosengren, "puts a higher premium on open space than any other state." At the same time, however, "there are a lot of old industrial sites ... once they get clean this may be a really good use."

Jeff Tittell, the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter director, applauded Christie for switching course by signing the solar bill and praised efforts like PSE&G's in Hackensack. But such projects, he cautioned, should be designed to make sure that they don't force development like housing or commercial real estate onto pristine land.

"You have to be careful because some brownfields should be redeveloped to keep greenfields free," Tittel said.

PSE&G already has turned two formerly contaminated sites into homes for solar. Combined with its other solar programs, the utility estimates, it has created 1,100 direct and indirect jobs in the industry.

Elsewhere, cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and New York are looking into using brownfields for renewables.