By Abby Gruen, The Star-Ledger
New Jersey is looking for cash in some unlikely places these days, like its toxic waste dumps and overflowing landfills.
These unloved hallmarks of long-lost industries and careless planning may actually be able to pay for their own cleanup, if state regulators and solar developers can figure out how to make their transformation economical.
But that’s a big “if.”
As the recession enters its third year, and credit remains tight, solar power developers itching to cash in on New Jersey’s generous renewable energy incentives are struggling to close deals on affordable land.
While the recent wave of solar development on fallow rooftop space of the Garden State’s warehouses, factories and big box stores continues unabated, developers hungry for larger sites — 25 to 50 acres — are coming up empty-handed.
Recognizing the pent-up demand, New Jersey is trying to cut regulatory red tape and position its 10,000 brownfields, including hundreds of closed dumps, as the next frontier for solar development.
“It’s a great way to take non-income-producing land and give it some income,” said David Bernhaut, vice chairman at real estate brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield in East Rutherford.
A bill promoting development of solar panels on landfills in municipalities around the state, and in the Pinelands, which has 78 unusable landfills, unanimously passed in the state Senate in August.
“New Jersey’s communities — particularly in the Pinelands region — are facing chronic budgetary problems and are quickly using up any developable land in the race for new ratables,” New Jersey Senator Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), the bill’s sponsor, said after the vote.
Gov. Chris Christie has made solar development on brownfields a keynote of his campaign and his energy policy. “As soon as Governor Christie announced that he was looking to site solar facilities on landfills, our phones rang off the hook,” said Coleen Kokas, manager of the brownfields reuse group at the Department of Environmental Protection, which is devoted to helping developers navigate through state and federal regulations governing development of landfills.
“It has been consistent for the past 18 months.”
Public Service Electric and Gas, New Jersey’s largest utility, is using brownfields in Trenton and Linden as part of a $515 million, two-year 80 megawatt solar development program that is also putting panels on utility poles, rooftops and clean open land.
The Trenton Solar Farm, under construction on 5.5 acres of land owned by PSE&G, will generate 1.3 megawatts of electricity, enough electricity to power 207 homes.
“We are looking to expand on other closed landfills across the state that are 50 to 100 acres,” said Al Matos, vice president for renewables and energy solutions for PSE&G. “We are all trying to figure out the economic model that works, but we don’t know yet what it will be.”
Stafford Park, a 370-acre brownfield redevelopment project within the Pinelands regional growth area, has housing, government buildings and stores like Target, Costco and Dick’s Sporting Goods. The developer, Walters Group, plans on installing more than 1,000 solar arrays on 30 acres of the site.
“The town was under order to close and cap two landfills, but they couldn’t afford it — it would have cost them $45 to $60 million,” said Joe Del Duca, partner and general counsel for Walters Group, whose headquarters is in Barnegat. ”The only way they could do it was to get a developer.”
Walters had to put a waterproof cap on the landfill that is being used for a solar field, and installed pipes and vents for monitoring.
The 6.5 megawatt field will produce 70 percent of the energy needed for the development.
Hundreds more single-family houses and market-rate apartments are still planned for the site.
“This only makes sense when you take land that can’t be used for anything else and put solar on it,” said Del Duca, whose firm specializes in environmentally challenged development.
“The money it generates can be used to close and cap landfills in the Pinelands.”
GETTING IT STARTED
While the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in the state are supporting using brownfields for solar development, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance is challenging the solar farm in Stafford.
“In general, we are for renewable energy and using it as a means to reuse brownfield space,” said Jaclyn Rhoads, director for conservation policy for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
“The problem with Stafford is that they made an agreement that the landfill would be considered open space for perpetuity and the space would be used for native grasses.”
The biggest problem for solar farms on brownfields, though, is their expense. Before panels can be installed, the sites must be cleaned up and capped, then developers must navigate a thicket of detailed legal regulations.
“These large projects have stalled out because there is no bank financing,” said Del Duca of Walters Group, who has looked at other large sites since Stafford that haven’t worked out. “There isn’t a whole lot going on right now.”
The Stafford Park project was successfully launched before the recession. Today, it would have a much harder time getting off the ground.
“The problem with brownfields is when you get closer, you find out you are going to redevelop them at a premium,” said Glenn Stock, a land developer with HES Energy Services of Hasbrouck Heights, which focuses on environmentally challenged properties.
“I am encouraged, though, by the fact that in this slow real estate market that a lot of landlords are considering carving out 4 or 5 megawatts (roughly 20 to 25 acres) to demonstrate that they are making progress and getting some revenue in the door,” Stock said.
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