Lawrence Township has received a statewide award that serves as the culmination of years of environmental work and the launching point for a series of new green projects throughout town.

In early December, the municipal government learned it had won the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in the Climate Change and Clean Air category for work it has done to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions. The township accepted the award Dec. 14.

The municipal complex on Lawrence Road features 958 solar panels. The township projects the panels will generate 85% of the power needed for the municipal building and police headquarters.

Among the projects cited in the township’s award application are solar carports installed at the municipal building and police headquarters last year and solar panels installed on the roof of the public works building in 2019. The township estimates the solar panels will generate 85% of the electric for those buildings.

“It is satisfying to be recognized as a community leading in efforts to be more sustainable in its operations,” Lawrence Township municipal manager Kevin Nerwinski said. “The work behind the scenes by some key township employees to accomplish this is substantial. To be recognized in this way validates our work and provides us with the motivation to press on.”

Nerwinski credited, in particular, councilman Christopher Bobbitt’s tenure as mayor in 2018-19. Bobbitt made sustainability the primary focus on his agenda, Nerwinski said. The major moment was in 2018, when Bobbitt pledged during the New Jersey Mayors’ Climate Summit to reduce Lawrence Township’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“As an architect by practice, I see some of the impacts of climate change and how even at a local level you can help start to make a difference,” Bobbitt said. “I’ve been part of Sustainable Lawrence and the Green Team and growth and redevelopment—looking at it from both the business side and the environmental side—so that when I became mayor that just seemed a natural progression on something we could do. We’ve been silver certified with Sustainable Jersey for quite some time now, so it’s not as if Lawrence Township hadn’t been doing a lot of things.”

The township participated in energy reduction programs in 2011, 2015, 2016 and 2018, switching to things like energy-efficient LED light bulbs. From the 2018 project alone, the municipal building saw a 35% reduction in energy.

In 2017, the township completed a review of its carbon footprint as part of the process to be certified by Sustainable Jersey, and selected the municipal building, the police headquarters and the public works building as potential sites to install solar panels. Construction began on solar carports at the municipal building and police headquarters on Lawrence Road and roof-mounted panels at the public works building on Bakers Basin Road in 2019. Work finished installing 958 solar panels at the municipal complex in January 2020. The project at public works finished sooner, with the 110 panels there saving 56,884 pounds of emissions alone between September 2019 and September 2020, according to the township’s award application.

The township also installed electric car chargers at the municipal complex in July 2020, and purchased two electric cars to replace two aging vehicles in the municipal fleet. It broadened its land use ordinance to allow solar and wind power projects in all districts, and established a green committee, which will be tasked with helping develop a community energy plan.

The energy plan, the township application said, is one of the next steps to showcase the township’s emissions reductions. Nerwinski said the township hopes to evaluate resiliency and sustainability on a larger scale while assembling the plan, and will involve community partners such as Sustainable Lawrence, Rider University and interested residents.

The township has applied to the state Board of Public Utilities for a grant to help fund the community energy plan’s development. Nerwinski said he expects to hear from BPU about the grant in the next few months.

Going forward, the township has begun installing solar panels at the senior center on Darrah Lane, using funds from Sustainable Jersey. The senior center’s energy usage is comparable to a small residential dwelling, the township said, with the solar panels there projected to generate all the energy the building needs. The township, in its award application, said it plans to use the senior center as a roadmap residents can replicate with their own homes.

The township also plans to review firehouses and emergency management services buildings to see if solar panels could be installed there.

Bobbitt said he has been thinking of projects the township could pursue beyond solar panels. In 2021, the state of New Jersey will require municipalities to make some changes to how they deal with stormwater, and Bobbitt said the switch has him contemplating how to use the opportunity to consider how to further mitigate the effects of stronger storms, increased precipitation and more frequent flooding due to climate change.

He said anything that’s not simply channeling the water back into the Assunpink Creek and toward the Delaware River would be a help, specifically mentioning rainwater gardens. The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, for example, gained national acclaim for its use of rainwater gardens to absorb stormwater and prevent its combined sewer system from overflowing during storms.

Bobbitt also said the pandemic has brought increased prominence to a question already circulating in Lawrence: how do we get around town without the use of the car? He mentioned installing more sidewalks and bike lanes as a potential solution, as is a map that shows safer paths for pedestrians and cyclists. The end goal would be to encourage and make easier the use of modes of transportation that don’t create greenhouse gas emissions like many automobiles do.

While climate change and greenhouse gas emissions often seem like complex global issues, Bobbitt said the township has shown that steps can be taken on the individual and local level that add up to make a difference.

“It’s better to try than to not do anything and sit on our hands,” he said.