By Michele S. Byers
YOU’VE PROBABLY NOTICED the proliferation of small solar panels mounted on utility and street light poles around this state we’re in. Judging by local buzz and letters to the editor of local newspapers, some folks think these mini solar panels are an eyesore. On a purely aesthetic basis, they may have a point. And each solar panel generates only about 220 watts of electricity. But in certain aspects, these panels are a prime example of renewable energy done right. The pole-mounted panels are part of a Public Service Electric & Gas program dubbed Solar 4 All – a $515 million investment in solar energy that leverages existing company assets and relationships to add 80 megawatts of solar capacity by 2013. As the program name implies, the energy generated goes into the general pool from which all PSE&G customers draw. By installing up to 200,000 of the 15-square-foot solar units on utility poles, PSE&G is able to spread out what is the equivalent of 170 acres of solar panels. This is known as a “distributed” power generation system, and it will generate 40 megawatts – or enough energy to power up to 8,000 average-size homes. It’s the world’s largest pole-mounted solar project.The alternative to a distributed solar power system is “centralized” power generation, like large solar fields or traditional power plants that are located in one spot. This type of intense industrial use is not appropriate for farmland and other open space lands. In Trenton and Linden, PSE&G’s centralized solar power generation sites are vacant brownfields. Converting brownfields to solar is a great use for land that is too polluted to safely support most other land uses. The company is also adding rooftop and carport solar systems to its facilities in Edison and Somerset. Of course, there are plenty of flat rooftops that PSE&G doesn’t own, so the Solar 4 All program also includes third-party locations where the utility pays for the use of the site to install solar panels. Fourteen projects are in various stages of negotiation, development and construction, including solar systems at five Newark public schools. And each site uses existing hardscape, like rooftops and parking lots, rather than covering open space or valuable farmland soils. New Jersey’s other major utilities have expanded their solar portfolios as well, and they are looking to use utility poles. Creative installation of solar panels on rooftops, parking lots, brownfields and, yes, utility poles has helped the Garden State make a bid to become the new “Sunshine State” – behind only California in solar power generated. For more information about the Solar 4 All program, go to www.pseg.com/family/pseandg/solar4all/index.jsp. And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.