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Solar Panels: Now Coming to a Utility Pole Near You

PSE&G program advances into Essex County towns.

Essex County residents are starting to notice solar panels popping up on PSE&G utility poles. But soon the panels won’t be hard to miss.

When the utility company’s plan is completed in 2013, 200,000 solar panels will be installed on utility poles in more than 300 municipalities across the state. It’s all part of PSE&G’s “Solar 4 All” program.

In July 2009, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) granted approval to PSE&G for the power company to invest more than $500 million in 80,000 kilowatts of solar projects.

The first of two major projects involves installing individual solar panels on utility poles; the second will create centralized solar gardens/farms on building rooftops and large tracts of land.

At the time, Ralph LaRossa, president and COO of PSE&G said in a press release, “Our program will effectively double the size of New Jersey’s installed solar capacity. That is more solar capacity than currently exists in any state other than California.”

PSE&G will receive federal tax credits and solar renewable energy credits, which will also be used to offset the cost to customers. The utility estimates the program will cost its average residential customer about 10 cents a month in the first year.

Individual panels, measuring approximately 2½-feet by 5-feet, started appearing on poles in 2010, oftentimes to mixed emotions. The current phase of the project is advancing to the Caldwells, West Orange, Verona, Montclair and Cedar Grove.

Caldwell resident William Krusznis had a panel installed recently on a pole outside his Westville Avenue home.

“While I am not against the idea,” Krusznis said, “I think the panels are quite ugly and encroaching. I would suggest they inform people about it before and perhaps attempt to make them more attractive, maybe consider putting them higher on the poles or somewhere else all together.”

Montclair Councilman Cary Africk, a member of the Montclair Environmental Commission, has been vocal about his opposition to the project.

“I certainly support the alternate energy sources, but this is very unattractive. PSE&G has very large rights of way with their high-tension power line towers. Why aren’t they putting them [solar panels] there?”

Many blogs and websites are saturated with comments both pro and con. Those in favor say after complaints of global warming from greenhouse gases and the burning of fossil fuels, how can anyone object to solar energy? Another argument in favor of the panels says with the acceptance of telephone poles with multiple digital cable boxes and electric wires snaking through our towns already — what’s wrong with adding a solar panel?

Residents are also asking why these panels can’t be installed along the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, routes 80, 280, and 78, etc. — and that’s just the northern part of the state.

David Weisman is the owner of Green Alternatives based in West Caldwell. Weisman, who calls himself a “solar geek,” offered his expertise.

“PSE&G is a local energy distribution company, under the regulation of the BPU. The high-tension power line towers are part of the regional electrical grid, PJM, an interstate transmission company whose territory stretches from the mid-Atlantic states, westward to Indiana and Illinois. They are under the purview of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, (FERC),” Weisman explained.

He added, “From a policy perspective, too many required variances are probably complicating cooperation between the two. Plus, there is too big of a difference in the power generated by these small solar panels and the energy running through those high-power lines.”

Fran Sullivan, a spokesman for PSE&G, affirmed that high-power lines are not a viable option for solar panels.

“Those lines are carrying one-quarter million to one-half million volts of power and could never receive the low levels of electricity created by the solar panels,” Sullivan said. “These panels need to connect right into the secondary power lines near the homes and businesses. That power has already been stepped down by a transformer on the pole to the household, 240/120-volt level. So installing them along the major highways in our territory is not possible either.”

While most people would prefer not to stare at solar panels out their windows, or in their parks and villages, placement is not based on aesthetics, according to Sullivan.

“We don’t pre-survey the poles,” Sullivan concluded. “We send out crews with a supply of panels and if the poles meet the criteria, they install the panel.”

The panel needs to have unobstructed, southern exposure, access to a secondary line and can’t block access to other equipment.

“It will probably average out to about one in four utility poles,” Sullivan said.

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