New Jersey municipalities are stepping up to help meet the state goals for renewable energy (solar, wind) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on foreign oil. However, town staff are finding that a lack of precedence and the tough choices regarding trade-offs are slowing the process.
New Jersey continues to be a leader in renewable energy and solar in particular, with over 18,000 solar development projects providing cleaner and renewable electricity. This is due in part to both federal and state financial incentives and in particular, New Jersey’s renewable portfolio standard which creates a market for owners of solar assets to sell Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs).
Municipalities Need Guidance
The large influx of solar projects has made an issue of the lack of clear guidance or accepted standards available to municipalities for properly siting and permitting these projects. As with any building improvement or development, solar projects must go through local land use and permitting procedures.
New Jersey municipalities are struggling to deal with issues ranging from the nitty-gritty of setting safety and aesthetics standards for small rooftop installations (would you like shrubbery with that solar panel?) to dealing with regional impacts from large commercial installations. Questions abound: Can I cut down the trees around my house so I can qualify for solar? Will the large-scale solar panel installation you are planning have an adverse effect on the surrounding wildlife and the overall image of the town? The need for renewable energy is great, but an honest assessment recognizes that when done wrong these installations can have significant land use, aesthetic, economic and environmental impacts.
Towns regulate the location, size and aesthetics of solar installations, but most municipalities do not have ordinances or site design standards in place to assess solar projects. Many towns are evaluating solar installations on a case by case basis. This piecemeal approach has a two-fold effect:
- Slowed solar industry growth – it becomes expensive to do solar projects due to an inconsistent, unpredictable and inefficient process that saps municipal and private sector resources.
- Undesired consequences of solar applications – if municipalities are not aware of, and prepared for them, it is easy to overlook some negative consequences of solar installations that could have been mitigated with guidance. This includes avoiding eyesores or the improper use of valuable or sensitive land.
Given the continuing demand for solar projects in New Jersey, it is becoming clear that municipalities should proactively address solar installations by revisiting their master plans and the development of ordinances outlining siting standards. Some municipalities have begun adopting ordinances to regulate the installation of solar panels in an attempt to balance the benefits of renewable energy with the goals characterized in their municipal planning documents and to preserve the aesthetics of their community.
However, without clear guidance on how to construct solar installation siting ordinances, many of these efforts conflict with state laws, are overly restrictive, fail to address key impacts, or produce other unintended consequences. Better guidance will enable municipalities to have clear rules that mitigate the worst unintended consequences while still promoting solar.
Coming Soon: Best Practices and Sample Ordinances
Sustainable Jersey and the New Jersey League of Municipalities are working to frame the issues around the siting of solar systems as a prelude to developing best practices and a guide for developing ordinances. The initiative has involved the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in order to identify and develop resources for municipalities to address solar siting.
So far, a survey has been done of local and state laws, including numerous local ordinances, state laws both enacted and concurrent, and guidelines set forth by regional planning authorities in addition to reports and position papers created by others regarding siting of solar installations
The survey results were synthesized into a draft policy background document that summarizes state and local regulations affecting solar installations and identifies common issue areas that should be considered when developing regulations on solar siting on the municipal level. Review the Solar Siting in New Jersey Background Report.
Solar Working Group
After a large roundtable discussion that brought together leadership from municipalities, state agencies and private businesses in New Jersey, a Solar Working Group (SWG) was developed. This group provides input and feedback on concerns to municipalities in regard to solar siting in New Jersey. Sustainable Jersey and this group are working to develop a guidebook for local governments that includes a solar siting ordinance framework and other resources.
The guidebook will be a comprehensive guide for New Jersey municipalities to better understand solar systems, state legislation that affects the siting of these systems, and the appropriate tools and methods (including models and templates for siting ordinances) that municipalities can use to incorporate solar systems into their community’s vision. To inform this effort, we have been gathering input from municipalities, solar developers and other stakeholders on the issues.
Given the continuing demand for solar projects in New Jersey, it is evident that the solar industry and municipal quality of life are best served by local governments that proactively develop siting standards. If you are interested in joining in a discussion regarding the guidance and framework for solar siting in New Jersey, e-mail Sustainable Jersey at firstname.lastname@example.org. The results of the Solar Working Group will continue to be posted on the Sustainable Jersey website and then developed into actions for the Sustainable Jersey certification program.
Sustainable Jersey staff and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog
Images of solar projects in New Jersey courtesy Sustainable Jersey