A New Jersey farm that was slated to become a housing development will now be used to cultivate energy from the sun.
Officials broke ground Wednesday on what they expect will be one of the nation's largest solar farms when it begins generating power next spring _ giving New Jersey even more bragging rights when it comes to harnessing the sun's power.
The original plan of a housing development replacing the farm was troubling some residents of the rural southern New Jersey town about 20 miles from Wilmington, Del.
Now, Dallas-based Panda Power Funds and Valhalla, N.Y.-based Con Edison Development _ the companies developing the project _ say its 71,000 solar panels situated on a 100-acre farm will be installed and generating power by April or May.
At 20 megawatts of DC power, it would be among the handful of largest solar farms in the nation. The only current one that's larger in the U.S. is a 25-megawatt facility opened last year in Arcadia, Fla. It can be tricky to list the nation's biggest because several large sites are being planned or built across the country.
The project is expected to create about 100 construction jobs, but only two or three maintenance jobs once the facility is running.
Despite the state's small size and a frequent clouds, New Jersey officials have been pushing solar generation _ and it's becoming increasingly common across the Garden State.
There are smaller arrays atop warehouses and suburban homes, alongside office parks and even hanging from light poles.
The reason is the state's solar-renewable energy certificate program.
It works a bit like the "cap and trade" program Congress is controversially considering for carbon emissions. Under the program, energy companies have to pay fines for generating power from nonrenewable resources.
To get out of those fines, they can buy certificates from businesses or people who generate solar power.
The going rate for those certificates, which are traded on the open market, is around $400 to $450 each.
The Pilesgrove solar project is expected to generate about 27,000 certificates a year. So in addition to the energy that can be sold, the companies can generate around $11 million to $12 million per year by selling the certificates _ or could save even more by using them themselves.
That makes for a relatively quick way to recoup the expected investment of $85 million to $90 million to build the solar farm.
"We've been in lots of states," Panda Power President Todd Carter told a crowd of New Jersey dignitaries at Wednesday's groundbreaking. "We do think you're the best."
In an interview, New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said the incentives, which were introduced during a Democratic administration, has the support of Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
While this is southern New Jersey's largest solar project so far, local officials say more could be coming.
Con Edison Development Chief Operating Officer Robert Mennella, said the area is attractive because of the state's incentives, flat and relatively inexpensive land and proximity to power substations and the large populations in the Philadelphia and New York metropolitan areas.