Several of region's solar power projects spurring opposition

Sunday, December 12, 2010
By STEPHEN J. NOVAK
The Express-Times

Backed by incentives but often greeted with skepticism, solar energy is beginning to surge in the Lehigh Valley and northwestern New Jersey.

At least 20 solar energy projects have been proposed or finished over a little more than a year.

"We definitely are busier than ever," said Jennifer Beattie, a marketing coordinator for Vanguard Energy Partners, a New Jersey-based company that opened a Bethlehem office in June. "(We) have more projects going on now than we ever have,"

But the surge in solar proposals has come with a surge in complaints.

Among the most common are those raised in White and Greenwich townships -- that views of farm fields will be replaced by rows of mirrors facing skyward.

When a plan for 300,000 solar panels in Greenwich Township was aired at a zoning hearing in June, more than 100 people from a standing-room-only crowd spilled outside the meeting room.

Residents in those townships, particularly those who live near potential solar sites, worry about the effect on their lives and property values.

The plan in Greenwich Township to install more than 300,000 panels over 110 acres pitched by Warren Solar, a subsidiary of Houston-based Elements Marketing, had residents questioning its merits as recently as a Thursday land use board hearing.

Real estate appraiser Charles Blau theorized at the hearing that taking away open farmland could hurt property values, but admitted there is limited information to draw from since solar power is still a young industry.

The White Township proposal is on a private property and has received the approval of the local zoning board, but a developer and opposing resident are working to reach a settlement.

The Nazareth Area School District has been back and forth with residents and lawsuits for more than a year over a plan that calls for 1,000 solar panels across three acres at Lower Nazareth Elementary.

Plans for 9,000 solar panels across nine acres in the Northampton Area School District have hit a snag with residents who want to see the property used for athletic fields.

Several residents who attended a meeting in November said they moved to Lehigh Township for the open spaces and rural character, and they don't want their children playing between two fences.

"It is like a forest of metal poles," Gerard Stezelberger said, adding that residents opposed to the plans will do everything they can legally to stop it.

Success stories

Solar fields operated by companies such as confectioner Mars North America in Hackettstown and pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck & Co. Inc. in Readington Township power both their facilities and the corporations' "green" bragging rights since the arrays were commissioned last year.

A solar farm for Crayola in Forks Township went online in August, and the company already has permission to expand its 15-acre facility another five acres.

A Mars spokeswoman said Friday the company is pleased and the 28,000 solar panel array -- separated from nearby homes by a row of trees -- is meeting expectations by providing up to two megawatts of power during peak hours, which equals about a fifth of the facility's power needs.

In October, the company was awarded the U.S. Green Building Council's second-highest certification in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

There was little to no opposition during Hackettstown zoning hearings. One board of adjustment member at the time said that, due to their minimal environmental impact, solar arrays are "exactly what we want."

High demand

Beattie, the Vanguard marketing coordinator, said government incentives have pushed solar projects along. New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the federal government have a variety of tax incentives, grants and rebate programs for both private and industrial projects. A list of programs, called the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, can be found online at dsireusa.org.

"It's a great investment. Most of the time, within a couple of years, people will get a complete return on their investment, reduce or completely eliminate their utility," she said.

"I feel like people who would have an issue with it, don't understand the benefits."

Reporter Stephen J. Novak can be reached at 610-258-7171, ext. 3542, or snovak@express-times.com. Talk about issues in your town at lehighvalleylive.com/forums.


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