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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Garden State Shines

Air Date: Week of

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It may come as a surprise, but New Jersey is second only to California when it comes to solar energy use. As Brian Zumhagen reports, the one billion dollar Clean Energy program gives large rebates to homeowners and businesses who are interested in installing solar energy. The hope is that it may transform the energy industry, and the marketplace, in the Garden State.


CURWOOD: These days, if you're thinking solar, you might want to think New Jersey. The Garden State is right behind California when it comes to promoting solar power. This isn't the first time New Jersey has been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to energy. After all, it was there that Thomas Edison first envisioned what would become the electrical power grid. Today, New Jersey is transforming the energy market once again, this time with a program that gives businesses and homeowners generous rebates to help them go solar. Brian Zumhagen reports.

ARESTY: All the homes in this neighborhood are built sort of out of the same plan. You look at each one, and you'll see it's…

ZUMHAGEN: Robert Aresty lives in Princeton, New Jersey, in one of the many cookie cutter style houses built for GIs coming back from World War II. Over the years, people in the neighborhood have made various changes to their homes. But while most have been content to add a room or a sun porch, Robert Aresty has turned his house into a model of solar energy efficiency.

ARESTY: This is the active solar domestic hot water system. It's placed behind the glass in the front of the house. So it's not even visible from the street.

ZUMHAGEN: As he walks through his house, Aresty points out how the solar heating system works. The sunlight comes in through large windows downstairs where a brick floor creates a convection current that sends warm air upstairs. In the attic, Aresty has insulated the roof with a special paint that inhibits infrared rays from coming in during the summer. That keeps air conditioning costs down.

Aresty actually invented that paint. And he went on to become the president of Solar Energy Corporation, the world's leading manufacturer of the coatings, which are also used to make solar panels absorb sunlight.

Robert Aresty isn't alone in his commitment to solar power. State governments have become increasingly interested in promoting renewable energy during the past decade. That's because of the deregulation of the energy market, says Tom Leyden, vice president of PowerLight Corporation, which installs photovoltaic solar panel systems all over the country.

LEYDEN: What's happened over the last ten years or so with deregulation, the states have been forced to think about the issue. And how do they promote clean energy? How do they expand their distribution? And how do they meet the demand of new electricity? And renewable energy is a practical, viable, cost-effective way to do it if the proper policy is in place.

ZUMHAGEN: Leyden says that, after California, New Jersey has been the leader among states when it comes to clean energy. The administration of Governor James McGreevey has made a commitment to get 12 percent of state government consumed power from renewable sources. It's all part of New Jersey's one billion dollar Clean Energy Program, a collaboration between regulators and the state's major utilities.

Dale Bryk is from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental advocacy group that helped New Jersey officials design the program. Bryk says the Garden State's efforts stand in stark contrast to the environmental policies of the Bush administration.

BRYK: New Jersey came out a couple of years ago with a commitment to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol commitments to reduce emissions within the state. So they're going to reduce their statewide emissions of greenhouse gases to three and a half percent below 1990 levels by 2005. And a large part of the way that they're doing that is by promoting investment in clean energy.

ZUMHAGEN: New Jersey officials have decided to emphasize solar energy rather than wind power, which is only in abundance along the Jersey shore. Solar power, on the other hand, is plentiful in the state, especially during the summer. And that's when residents and businesses are overwhelming the power grid with their air conditioners, says Jeanne Fox, president of New Jersey's Board of Public Utilities.

FOX: In July and August, our peak demand is high. That's when the dirty energy generating facilities will come on board, the back-up plants. We still have air quality problems in New Jersey. So it really does help, also, with our air quality which is important to the residents.

ZUMHAGEN: For advocates like Jeanne Fox, it's not hard to convince residents and business owners about the long-term benefits of solar. The problem is the upfront costs of buying and installing solar electric systems. A homeowner can expect to pay up to 25,000 dollars for photovoltaic panels and the other equipment necessary to convert sunlight into electric current.

After looking at California's programs, New Jersey officials decided that the best way to get people to go solar is to give them rebates to help them pay the start-up costs. Under the Clean Energy Program, homeowners who install new photovoltaic systems can recover up to 70 percent of the cost from the state. That's significantly higher than California's 50 percent rebate cap.

Dale Bryk from the NRDC says the goal of New Jersey's incentive program is to transform the marketplace to make it easier for customers to invest in clean energy technology.

BRYK: Right now, I can't just walk into a Home Depot and buy a solar panel, have it put on my roof on the weekend by trained installers, and have a financing package all set up for me so that I just sign on the dotted line, and I'm paying a monthly fee that's maybe a little more comparable to my electric bill.

ZUMHAGEN: If solar systems become more popular, says Bryk, more businesses will be encouraged to offer the technology to consumers. State officials hope that will bring prices down, so that they can phase out the rebates within eight years. So far, the Garden State seems well on the way to meeting its goals. In a year and a half, New Jersey has committed to producing more megawatts of solar capacity than California did during the first two years of its program. For Living on Earth, I'm Brian Zumhagen in New Jersey.



The New Jersey Clean Energy Program


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