Inaction eclipses solar field plan

By ADAM SMELTZ
Courier-Post Staff

The economic downturn hasn't been kind to Gloucester Township.

Municipal officials have switched to a four-day work week to contain energy costs and watched as hundreds of thousands of dollars have disappeared from their state-aid package. Now they're weighing another increase in the municipal property-tax levy for the 2010 fiscal year.

But a potential revenue source for the township -- one supporters believe could help minimize tax increases -- has remained practically untouched for more than a year, several township leaders said last week.

As of May 2008, three companies had made presentations suggesting a solar field could be built atop the polluted GEMS Landfill.

The township could lease the high ground to a private company at a premium rate and the company, in turn, would install solar panels and sell solar-generated electricity to a utility provider. Both the township and the company would benefit, advocates have said.

Township officials even created a subcommittee to study the presentations and the overall solar prospects.

That committee has not met in months, township Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton said Friday.

The presentations made in early 2008 -- one each from Ray Angelini Inc., MIUS LLC and Allco Renewable Energy Group -- are sitting stagnant, she said.

"The process just stopped. We're losing the opportunity to have a constant (source of) revenue. That's what we need," said Rau-Hatton, an advocate for the solar-energy prospects. "This would have been perfect."

Tensions have flared before between Rau-Hatton, a Republican up for re-election, and the mostly Democratic township council. The seven-member council includes one Republican.

Several council members, including President Glen Bianchini and Vice President Orlando Mercado, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Councilwoman Crystal Evans, a Democrat, said that Rau-Hatton has been "kind of drowned out by council" and that "unfortunately, politics is a little bit in the way."

She said tax increases for the 70,000 township residents could be mitigated if the municipality were drawing solar revenue from the landfill.

Representatives of companies that made the solar presentations were also not immediately available.

Alternative energy sources, including wind- and solar-driven projects, have gained traction elsewhere in New Jersey. In Vineland, the city announced plans to install more than 7,600 solar panels at Landis Sewerage Authority.

By the time it's complete, the Vineland project should generate enough electricity to power 400 homes on peak days, according to the utility authority. Conectiv Energy is a partner in the project.

But Gloucester Township has not received any formal solar pitches because it has not officially issued a request for proposals, said Eugene E.T. Lawrence, a member of the solar subcommittee there.

A former township council member, Lawrence said he began talking about solar-energy possibilities here in 2000.

Two years ago, Lawrence said, a citizens' advisory committee talked about the sale of solar energy as a way to keep taxes down.

"They (the council members) could have gotten (financial) information simply by putting out a request for proposals," Lawrence said.

He said the GEMS Landfill, "the highest point in South Jersey, is absolutely perfect" for a field of solar panels.

"Every company that I have taken out there has said this is just perfect. We have to do it," Lawrence said. "It's time to get smart."

"It's time to think beyond the way things have always been done," Lawrence said.

Reach Adam Smeltz at (856) 486-2919 or asmeltz@gannett.com

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