In the mid 1970’s, following the cutoff of petroleum imports and the energy crisis, I led an industrial project on an improved method of converting waste cellulosic materials such as paper, wood residues and the like to fuel-grade alcohol and valuable byproducts. We obtained patents, published a peer-reviewed paper, gave presentations and did financial analyses. Although in limbo now due to the relatively low price of oil, this and other such processes are still available if ever needed.
Having this background in renewables, I always take a good look at alternative energy projects that could decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. But I would insist that such projects be independently evaluated from both technical and financial viewpoints before any contracts would be signed. This is how we operate in industry and how we should operate in responsible government.
State law (NJSA 40A:12-15) specifically prohibits renting municipal land to private profit-making companies, except for simply transmitting electrical power over the land. If read strictly, PSE&G would not be able to lease the land to generate electricity for sale. I would like to know if there is any case law or other precedents to the contrary regarding such a lease.
Municipal land is also not exempt from our local land use ordinances. This parcel is in the Research/Office zone, where electrical facilities are not a directly permitted use. Rather, they are a conditional use. One condition is that the project would have to be first vetted by the township’s Site Plan Review Advisory Board and then have a formal hearing before the Planning Board. The public would be allowed to comment at both of these meetings. Another condition is that such a project would have to be in keeping with the architectural character of the neighborhood.
Township Attorney Michael Herbert has stated that contracts for electrical service can be awarded on a no-bid basis. This is true, but it is irrelevant if the land couldn’t legally be used for this purpose in the first place.
The public should consider whether the relatively small amount of income from renting this land to PSE&G would compensate for (a) the loss of the cornfield, which besides releasing oxygen to the air and converting carbon dioxide to food, is green and looks nice, and (b) the addition of a frankly industrial use, even though shielded, in the center of town.
West Windsor has about 8,000 houses. Even without taking into account commercial space that pays its own taxes, receiving $29,000 extra annual revenue would mean that the average homeowner would have to pay only about $3 less in property taxes per year. Many taxpayers might willingly forego the small overall tax savings in return for not having the solar field installed on prime farmland in the middle of town.
There would still be the issue of not presently having backup power for the Fire and Emergency Services building. However, as Ph.D. electrical engineer/councilman Hemant Marathe has pointed out, the existing generators near the FEMS building have plenty of excess capacity to meet this need, which was confirmed by PPS at the Jan. 31 council meeting.
The town would need to provide the wiring and related switchgear for this, and cost estimates should be worked out before making any firm decision on the solar field. Doing this relatively simple work would avoid the need to purchase a separate FEMS generator as well as remove the main reason for putting in the solar field. Plus, it would be a permanent solution.
PSE&G should provide the town and its taxpayers with a detailed technical and financial proposal before this project is taken any further. We would give this proposal an independent, fair, and complete evaluation. The land use issues also would have to be resolved.
All this must precede the writing of any actual contracts. The town’s fiduciary responsibility to its taxpayers demands no less.
— John A. Church, West Windsor