New Jersey an unlikely leader in U.S. solar energy
* State has strict energy mandate
* Homeowners say solar panels are unsightly
By Ronda Kaysen
MONTCLAIR, N.J., May 13 (Reuters) - New Jersey, home to more industrial waste clean-up sites than any other state, is poised to become an exemplar of U.S. solar power usage -- though not everyone is happy about it.
Yet the combination of a strict state mandate and a generous carbon offset program has made New Jersey -- where only three in eight days are sunny -- the second-largest U.S. producer of solar power, after California, where more than half the days are 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 the producers 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.
A new law will open the state's many landfills 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.
AFFRONT TO HOMES' APPEARANCE
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 is to be completed next summer. The new canopy is designed to generate more than $1 million a year in electrical power, school officials say.
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 on residential streets, part of a push by the state's largest utility company, the Public Service Enterprise Group (PEG.N), 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 (1.52 metres) by 2.5 feet (0.7 metres), had been installed on utility poles in the affluent community of Ridgewood in Bergen County before an outcry erupted. Angry residents 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.
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 state's still-weak economy, a move renewable energy supporters fear could affect solar energy legislation. (Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)
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