By W. JACOB PERRY, Staff Writer | Posted Mar 29, 2013
BERNARDS TWP. – A deal to have a developer build a solar power plant on the municipal landfill on Pill Hill Road has been amended to allow the township, if it chooses, to receive the energy.
Much remains unknown, but the project could provide all the energy the municipal government needs while saving anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million over a 15-year period, according to Township Administrator Bruce McArthur.
The amendment was approved at the Township Committee meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Ironically, the township caught a break from a snag in the state bureaucracy.
Local officials spent more than two years trying to solicit a solar energy project on the landfill before a third round of bids resulted in a contract with Syncarpha EFG I of New York in March 2011.
Under the deal, Syncarpha received a 15-year lease under which it would pay the township $470,000 to build a solar photovoltaic system. Of that amount, $20,000 was paid upfront.
The deal called for Syncarpha to operate the system and sell the power to Jersey Central Power and Light (JCP&L) while receiving federal tax credits.
The landfill site, which includes a recycling center that will remain, still needs to be connected to the power utility’s grid, which officials have characterized as a long, costly process.
Syncarpha took a major step forward on Oct. 25 when it received approval from the Planning Board. At the time, Richard Turnure, a principal in the firm, said the project would be “ready to go” as soon as new state legislation on solar power was codified by the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU).
That legislation was signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie last July.
But Syncarpha soon grew concerned with the pace of the codification process, which includes pricing. At a Township Committee meeting on Nov. 27, McArthur said there were fears “about the process being hijacked by a lot of other special interests.”
He said Syncarpha still planned to proceed, but wanted to be sure the BPU wouldn’t impose rules that would hurt the project’s economic viability.
At the Feb. 26 committee meeting, McArthur said Syncarpha was given two, three-month time extensions by the township to execute the plans for a fee of $15,000 each. Those extensions have now been used but the BPU still hasn’t codified the solar legislation, so Syncarpha sought to amend the deal to get additional time, he said.
Township officials agreed to allow a three-month extension followed by a 12-month extension, with each requiring a $15,000 payment. In return, McArthur said Syncarpha would give the township the right of first refusal to enter into a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) in which the township, not JCP&L, would buy the energy.
JCP&L and grid operator Penn-Jersey-Maryland (PJM) would remain involved in delivering the energy, he said.
Local officials had always hoped a solar project could provide a PPA for the township, but that wasn’t permissible until the passage of the solar legislation last year.
Committeeman Scott Spitzer said he worked on the amendment with Syncarpha and felt a PPA could have “the potential for significant savings.”
The committee approved the amendment in a 4-0 vote, with Committeewoman Mary Pavlini absent.
Syncarpha’s lease applies to 18 acres of the 32-acre landfill. Project representatives told the Planning Board last October that 13,000 solar panels would be installed on six-foot-high racks facing south.
Though anchored by concrete ballasts, the ballasts would not penetrate the landfill’s four-foot-deep protective “cap,” which consists of grass, compacted soil and a plastic liner.
“It’s a win-win,” Steven Tripp, attorney for Syncarpha, told the planners. “You’re creating renewable energy when there’s little else you can do with a capped landfill.”
The township opened a dump on the property in September 1916. Rats were a major problem by the 1950s, and in August 1961, the dump was converted into a sanitary landfill in which waste was dumped into a trench and covered. It was closed in 1986.
In 1995, at the direction of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the township capped the landfill with layers of clay and soil at a cost of $2 million to prevent environmental problems.