West Windsor is one step closer to approving a solar microgrid project at the township municipal site.
Council considered the issue on Jan. 30, at a meeting that featured representatives from PSE&G and Princeton Power Systems to give details on the project.
The plan is for the microgrid to be built by PSE&G on the Censoni tract adjacent to the West Windsor municipal site. The solar panels would be constructed on a five-acre tract behind the Princetin Junction Firehouse.
A formal agreement with the township is still pending, and the solar experts will next do a detailed analysis of the project.
An agreement is expected to be ready to present to council in a few months.
In an informal straw poll, council members Alison Miller, Ayesha Hamilton and Linda Geevers expressed support for the project, which is currently in the conceptual stage. Geevers voiced several concerns, but said the project could move forward. The lone dissenting council member was Hemant Marathe, who repeatedly questioned the necessity of the project.
Peter Mendonez, council president, recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest. Mendonez’s previous employer works with PSE&G’s Solar 4 All program, which is funding the proposed $4 million project. Miller, as council vice president, took over as presiding officer.
Early estimates for the proposed size of the solar array had been as high as one megawatt, but the latest proposal reduced it to 500 kilowatts. PSE&G would own, operate, and maintain the solar array, which would be installed on the municipally-owned Censoni tract between the firehouse and the emergency services building on Everett Drive. PSE&G would pay for the system, as well as for fencing and landscaping that would be installed to screen the solar panels from public view.
PSE&G would lease the land for $29,000 a year, with a 2.5 percent annual increase, for 20 years. The lease payment to the town would be fixed, a change from earlier reports that the town’s rent would be 4.5 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated.
PSE&G’s Andrew Powers said the $29,000 is based off a 500-kilowatt system’s estimated generation, and there would be no change in lease payments based on under or over production.
The feature that distinguishes the proposed project from run-of-the-mill solar generation is battery storage and control equipment, provided by Princeton Power, that allows the system to operate as a microgrid.
This means the system could still operate in the event the overall utility grid goes down. In the event of an outage, the microgrid would be disconnected from PSE&G and instead supply solar and battery power to the township’s fire and emergency services building, firehouse, and police station.
Mayor Shing-fu Hsueh has said this would mean additional resiliency for important township services in the event of an outage.
Currently, the firehouse and police station are backed up by one generator each, and the town has budgeted $150,000 for a third generator for the EMS building.
Tom Rust and Marta Loc from Princeton Power Systems said the company’s technology would integrate the solar and battery components with the two existing diesel generators, and these would collectively serve as a backup source of power. Loc estimated the battery system would provide two to four hours of electricity if the three buildings operated at a maximum load of 200 kilowatts.
The average load is 100 kilowatts, which could extend the battery life to up to 10 hours. The solar panels would simultaneously supply power and recharge the battery, weather permitting, and the diesel generators would kick in once those supplies were exhausted.
After the presentation, Marathe expressed skepticism over the project’s benefits to the town.
“If two generators are sufficient, why do we need a battery?” said Marathe, in reference to the two existing 400-kilowatt generators. Marathe also questioned whether the battery system could power the service buildings through the night when the array would not be generating power.
‘This is the only piece of land we own that is unencumbered by open-space restrictions.’
Loc said the generators last through the night, and then in the morning solar powers the building and recharges the battery. “It is essentially a cycle,” she said.
Loc added that each diesel generator is currently only connected to one building. The town would need to pay for the installation of “advanced controls” in order to tie the two generators with three buildings, while under the proposal, Princeton Power is installing the system for PSE&G at no cost to the township.
Neil Bradshaw, an engineer from Princeton Power Systems, said the microgrid system would be a “fuel-saving program” for the township in the event of an outage. A 500-kw system would produce 2 megawatt-hours of power after four hours of peak sun.
“It’s an amazing offer,” Bradshaw said.
“There’s nothing in life that is free,” Marathe said in response. He also asked why PSE&G would not let the town use the photovoltaic electricity produced on township land.
Powers said the utility sells the energy that is generated as well as renewable credits, and in exchange for building the system it can only pay rent to the host.
“The reason the project is attractive is because we’re not spending taxpayer money on it,” said Miller.
Marathe said he was not convinced $29,000 is the maximum amount West Windsor could attain.
“My fiduciary duty is to explore all options, which no one has done,” Marathe said. While he did not articulate an alternative plan, Marathe made note of the school district’s high school rooftop solar panel system, which the district paid for and owns.
Resident Marshall Lerner opposed the project, which he said could impact the value of nearby properties, adding “we have a solution in search of a problem.”
Resident Jianping Wang called the project a “no-brainer,” and asked whether the senior center would also be connected to the microgrid, and also whether PSE&G would upgrade the system during the 20-year lease.
PSE&G’s Powers said the utility anticipates replacing the battery system in 5 to 10 years, adding that the utility will completely remove the solar array after 20 years at no cost to the township.
Miller said adding the senior center to the microgrid could be an option to be explored.
Township landscape architect Dan Dobromilsky said that PSE&G would pay for fencing and plantings to screen the array, which would be between 120 and 180 feet away from Clarksville Road.
In a previous meeting, he had said the array would be 600 feet away from the nearest residential property line.
“This is the only piece of land we own that is unencumbered by open-space restrictions,” Dobromilsky said.
Resident Andy Bromberg asked everyone to “all work together to make this a better town.”
“I have no notes, I came here to listen and learn. There are people here who always come here and complain,” Bromberg said. “I hear people say their property 3 miles away is going to be affected. What kind of statement is that?”
After public comments, Marathe maintained that he was “not comfortable” with the proposal, and he asked why alternatives have not been explored in the past few years.
“We have latched onto one option and not anywhere else,” Marathe said.
In other business at the meeting, council endorsed the installation of a dedicated left-turn signal at the intersection of Princeton-Hightstown Road (County Route 571) and Southfield Road.
The left-turn phase will be for cars on southbound Southfield Road turning left onto 571. Mercer County has jurisdiction over the project.
The council also introduced an ordinance that authorizes the town to install crosswalk signage at the Wallace Road circle train station entrance.