Gloucester Twp. considers proposals for solar field
By MEG HUELSMAN Courier-Post Staff May 8, 2008

Competing plans for the Superfund site could cost the township anywhere from $16 million to nothing.

For township officials, adoption of a plan could translate into a new, constant source of revenue to ease the township's ongoing financial crunch caused by inflating costs and continuous funding cuts from the state. It also could provide a source of cheap electricity and turn the landfill into a revenue-producing entity.

"I'm so frustrated," Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "We just cannot lose this opportunity. We should have already leased the property so we could have that revenue coming in. Each day is a potential loss for us."

A subcommittee formed to explore the possibility of solar energy at GEMS Landfill has heard three presentations since April from interested companies.

Ray Angelini Inc. of Washington Township, suggested installing long racks of solar panels, called a solar field, atop the cap, similar to projects across the East Coast that convert the sun's rays into electricity. The plan, estimated to cost the township about $16 million, would entail the township hiring the firm to install and maintain the panels.

Weeks later, Washington, D.C.-based renewable energy consultant Dale Barnhard of MIUS LLC introduced a plan to lease the property and pursue the necessary state and federal permits to install a $40 million solar array. That cost would be absorbed by the energy company.

On Monday, Keith Peltzman of Allco Renewable Energy Group based in New York, presented a nearly identical plan. The company wants to lease the polluted property from the township and install long racks of solar panels atop the landfill. The plan, he said, would cost the township nothing.

"You're not going to build houses or turn it into a shopping mall," said the company's managing director Chris Whitman. "We're very interested, but we're waiting from feedback from the township."

Regardless of the growing interest in the site, however, officials have yet to sign an agreement, lease the land, draft a request for proposals or make any concrete decisions that would move the project from a theoretical proposition to a sealed agreement.

"I just feel like we're losing this opportunity," Rau-Hatton said.

The subcommittee, which consists of current and former council members, the township solicitor and a handful of residents, continues to explore the idea, but just drafting the RFP requires an extensive amount of logistical information. By law, the contract must go to the lowest bidder so the RFP must be very specific.

Further legal issues stem from an agreement among the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the township and the dozens of municipalities across New Jersey and Pennsylvania who dumped waste into the landfill.

A fund, created as part of a court-ordered settlement to maintain the landfill, is overseen by five trustees -- one of which is the township -- who must approve any plan to install solar panels.

As a final obstacle, the clock is ticking. Currently, the state Board of Public Utilities offers grants to encourage private and public entities to pursue renewable energy technologies. By Dec. 31, the grants will stop and utility companies will pay solar generators in renewable energy credits after the facilities are built.

"We just can't let this pass us by," said former councilman Gene Lawrence, who has taken the lead on the committee. "This is a golden opportunity."

Council president Glen Bianchini did not return messages for comment. Reach Meg Huelsman at (856) 251-3345 or mhuelsman@courierpostonline.com