West Windsor is continuing to consider construction of a solar array at the township municipal site, despite the fact that Public Service Electric and Gas has pulled out of a deal to build the project. Opponents to the project, meanwhile, are arguing that the property needs to be considered for other uses.
Township council on April 24 approved a resolution authorizing the administration to work with ACESplus — the Alliance for a Cooperative Pricing System — a program run by the New Jersey School Boards Association that provides consulting services to develop energy projects. Although the program is run by the NJSBA, it is also open to municipalities.
The administration and township environmental commission looked into the ACESplus program after PSE&G decided it didn’t want to work with West Windsor to construct a solar microgrid on a five-acre portion of the Censoni tract—the open space property owned by the township next to the municipal complex.
That plan called for PSE&G to lease the five acres on the Censoni tract for 20 years. The utility would have installed, owned and managed the array at no cost to the township. In addition to generating renewable electricity that PSE&G would sell to ratepayers, the array would have provided the township with revenue and also served as an additional back-up power system for buildings within the municipal complex.
Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh said during the council meeting that PES&G dropped out of the project because it believed that the solar microgrid “would never get approval from the township council.”
Under the ACESplus program, the township would work with the NJSBA’s consultant, Gabel Associates of Highland Park, to evaluate and develop a solar microgrid.
The resolution calls for Gable to come up with a draft request for proposal for the council to review. If acceptable, the next step would for council be to authorize a formal RFP and solicit bids.
The work for Gable to come up with the draft RFP would be performed at no cost to the township, but the town would be obligated to pay up to $35,000 if council votes to go ahead with the project, and a formal RFP is approved.
The resolution was approved by a 3-2 vote, with council president Peter Mendonez, vice president Alison Miller and Ayesha Hamilton voting yes. Opposing the measure were council members Linda Geevers and Hemant Marathe.
Before the vote, Geevers said the feedback she has been getting from residents on the issue is divided. “(Some) people absolutely love this idea and support it, and there’s people who absolutely hate it. There’s a big difference of opinion in this township.”
“The property is prime real estate adjacent to our municipal complex and many people still see this whole solar array as a huge eyesore,” she said, adding that a lot of people don’t like the idea of committing to put “all that metal there” for at least 20 years.
She also said that some residents have said that the township should be considering other options on the tract to determine its best use.
“It just seems like it’s the solar array or nothing else,” she said. “I think a broader discussion in the community about how this land should be used needs to happen.”
“We’re going to have a new mayor come Jan. 1, and maybe that’s something that a new mayor should explore,” Geevers said. Hsueh has announced that he will not run for reelection this November. She added that another option could be an affordable housing project on the site, or a recreation use.
Miller argued the township has hundreds of acres of dedicated open space where recreational uses are allowed, but a solar array would be prohibited. She suggested that calling for recreational uses on the Censoni tract—the only open space parcel where a solar array is allowed—is a “desperate” argument.
Mendonez said that the process for evaluating this current proposal is similar to several years ago, when the township explored and ultimately decided to join an energy aggregation program. He said in that case, the township had a consultant come in with answers to all of their questions. “Not fake news. Not opinions. Facts. And that’s what I’m looking for right now,” he said.
He also pointed out that the town had worked with Gabel Associates for the energy aggregation program. “The process is what we have to trust in, and it is the same one that got us to a good outcome, where we all saved money and we have green energy today,” Mendonez said.
This was the first opportunity Mendonez has had to consider the solar array. He recused himself during previous discussions, because of a potential conflict of interest. A company that he does business with also does business with PSE&G. With the utility out of the picture, Mendonez is now free to participate in the process.
Marathe argued that the township would not get the answers it needs from the draft RFP, and that those answers can only come from the formal RFP. In that case, the township would wind up being on the hook for $35,000 whether it decides to proceed with the project or not.
Responding to Marathe’s concerns, township landscape architect Dan Dobromilsky said the administration would bring the draft RFP back to the council for input, and representatives from Gabel will be present to answer questions from council members.
“They would tell you what they think is feasible of any questions or comments you have,” he said.
Council would then decide if it wants the go forward with a formal RFP. Interested companies would submit proposals based on the specs outlined in the RFP, and the council could award a contract to one of those companies.
Marathe also argued that the town needs more time to consider this plan and other potential uses of the property. He made a motion to table the resolution, which was seconded by Geevers.
“People have personal preferences that are being pushed on the town,” Marathe said. “I have nothing against people having personal preferences. I have nothing against people believing in something. But don’t push it on taxpayers to justify your personal preferences.”
Hamilton seemed to agree that tabling the resolution was a good idea. “Is there any harm from tabling it? I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t want it tabled indefinitely, because I think this is a good thing for this town, but I don’t think there is any harm in thinking about what the alternatives are.”
Several minutes later though, Hamilton voted along with Mendonez and Miller against tabling the resolution.
“This discussion has taken years, and rightfully so… During all those years, no one else has come up with a viable use for that land,” she said. “I’m tired of talking about it.”
In response, Marathe said that the township has never discussed a use for the property other than as a solar field. “I just want it to be noted, for the record, that nobody was ever asked what that land should be used for,” Marathe said.
Council then voted to pass the resolution. Before the council vote, several members of the public spoke on the measure—many of them in opposition.
Brian Maher, a resident of Penn Lyle Road and former member of township council, questioned why the town is still considering the project.
“I’d like to know why the council and administration is wasting significant time and resources to try and get an unneeded solar farm in the middle of West Windsor on attractive, fertile farmland.”
He said that the project appears to have little public support, is unnecessary since the township already has backup generators, and “would be an eyesore for decades.”
Maher also questioned the motivations for the project, stating that someone in administration was looking to “pad their resume,” or that Hsueh was looking for “one more photo opp before leaving office at the end of the year.”
Marshall Lerner, a resident of Sapphire Drive, agreed with Maher. “It represents political motives by an outgoing mayor, as opposed to town interests,” he said.
He suggested that the town should explore putting solar on the roof of the building at the municipal complex, rather than putting it on undeveloped land.
Lorrie Lane resident Robert Murray, a former member of township committee and mayor, suggested that the township “get the issue out of the political arena” and “take a breather” by appointing a committee that can study the issue and visit municipalities who have done their own solar array projects.
“Get some appreciation for exactly how this benefited their community,” he said. “We’d be in a much stronger position to not take a political view of one side or the other, but to take an objective view as to how this would benefit West Windsor Township.”
Courtney Drive resident Kathleen Brennan also opposed the project. “The solar array does not belong on good land. It belongs on brownfields, roofs or parking lots,” she said.
Kamal Khanna, a Millbrook Drive resident who is running for mayor, said it was his understanding that the township doesn’t have an adequate backup system, and that was the reason the township has been discussing the issue for more than three years. “I think not having a backup system is not an option,” he said.
Hsueh said that in order for the two generators currently at the municipal site to provide backup power, a microgrid needs to be constructed, or the township needs to purchase a third generator, which would cost $150,000.
“This is only a proposal to see if we want to move,” Hsueh said to the council. “Let’s see if we can bring this to a final conclusion so we don’t have to waste our time on it any more.”
“We don’t have any political motivations to make this happen, and nobody is making a profit out of it,” he said.