A solar energy back-up system at the West Windsor municipal site is the latest proposal mired in mayor-council disagreement.
Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh has asked council to approve a project under which Public Service Electric and Gas would build a solar array on the municipally owned Censoni Tract adjacent to the township municipal site. PSE&G would lease the land and install, own and manage the array at no cost to the township.
In addition to generating renewable electricity that PSE&G would sell to ratepayers, the array would provide the township with revenue and serve as an additional back-up power system for buildings within the municipal complex.
The town is still negotiating a final contract with PSE&G, though Hsueh is urging council to act fast, before PSE&G runs out of the money that it has available for these types of projects.
Thus far, the mayor does not have the council majority of three votes he would need for the project to proceed. Council President Linda Geevers and Vice President Hemant Marathe have raised numerous concerns, and Councilmember Peter Mendonez cannot vote on the deal due to a conflict of interest. Council members Alison Miller and Ayesha Hamilton have indicated support for the project.
A tentative proposal calls for a 625-kilowatt system, though the site can easily accommodate one megawatt, which would produce enough to power more than 150 homes. For using the land, PSE&G would pay the town 4.5 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. Currently, the town earns $1,000 or so a year leasing the land for farming. The proposed system would net the town $36,765 annually, according to officials.
The proposed array would be 600 feet away from the nearest residential property line. In addition, the ground-mounted solar panels would not be visible from the road. They would be fenced off and screened with landscaping.
The feature that distinguishes this proposed project from run-of-the-mill solar systems is a battery storage system that would serve as a standalone backup supply to nearby municipal buildings in the event of a large-scale power outage.
Currently, the municipal complex has two natural gas and two diesel back-up generators. In addition, the administration has budgeted $150,000 for the purchase of a backup generator at the recently renovated Fire and Emergency Services Building. The proposed solar system would eliminate the need to purchase the new generator and possibly allow the township to remove the two existing backups.
“Ninety percent of solar arrays are useless when the power goes out,” said Andrew Kulley of the Environmental Commission, who has supported the project for the past three years. “During an outage, the utility disconnects a system from the grid because they don’t want repair crews to encounter live wires.”
Hsueh has said he would like a decision by Council before the end of the year.
For this project, PSE&G would partner with Lawrence-based Princeton Power Systems so that when an outage happens, the array performs as a “microgrid” for the municipal site.
“If at any point the larger grid goes down, the microgrid is disconnected and seamlessly the municipal buildings are powered by the battery,” Kulley said. “And if they larger grid is down for a longer period of time, the batteries can be recharged during the day.”
Kulley, town landscape architect Dan Dobromilsky, and Princeton Power Systems executive Tom Rust discussed the proposal with council at a work session on Sept. 26.
Rust said the project would cost around $3.5 million, and he indicated PSE&G may be approaching its funding limit for solar projects. The proposal would be under PSE&G’s “Solar 4 All” program and would receive grant funding from the state Board of Public Utilities.
Hsueh has said he would like a decision by Council before the end of the year so that PSE&G could start construction next spring.
Complicating matters is the recusal of Mendonez. He has voiced support for the project, but his employer, A.F. Mensah, is contracted with the Solar 4 All program. To avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, he has said that he will not vote on the matter.
That leaves the vote to the four other council members, and Geevers and Marathe have been noncomittal about their support.
“We’re trying to get feedback from the community,” said Geevers, adding the project might be added to the council agenda in January. “We asked the administration to bring some more information back, answer in a timely way and not act last minute, and then blame us.”
Reached by phone, Marathe raised numerous questions about the proposal. “We had an initial discussion. I had asked a number of questions about the proposal, and the mayor hasn’t gotten back to me. The proposal is coming from the mayor, and the mayor has to figure out how to get them answered.”
Marathe said his focus is on whether the township will be fairly compensated. He also questioned whether the battery would be an effective backup source in the event it is not charged when an outage occurs.
“If they drain the battery before we have a chance to recharge, what then?” Marathe asked. “Solar panels are not easy to look at. This is going to be right outside the township municipal building. There’s not one array where the solar panels cannot be seen. I have no idea how I feel about it because I don’t have answers to these basic questions.”
In contrast, Miller called the proposal a “great idea” and said it would be “irresponsible for the township not to pursue.”
“During budget season, we have Council members asking, can’t we estimate this revenue higher and cut expenses lower? The idea that any fiscally conservative council member can shrug off $30,000 is disconcerting,” Miller said.
Kulley said some of the details, such as battery size and how much electricity the municipal complex would need, have not been finalized.
“How much consumption depends on how many buildings are connected. How many buildings are connected depends on negotiations with PSE&G. There are costs to connecting more buildings, plus the additional complexity to microgrid architecture,” Kulley said.
Hsueh said he is talking to PSE&G and other individuals involved to try to answer some of the questions coming from council. Asked if the township has considered developing its own microgrid, Hsueh said he is interested in installing rooftop solar panels at the municipal complex.
“I have been trying to do that, but as part of the municipal renovation. The main building needs a new roof. That’s another issue that has been suspended,” Hsueh said. “I’m going one at a time, I don’t want to overload council.”