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Our view: New Jersey's race to zero emissions calls for more creative approach

Our view: New Jersey's race to zero emissions calls for more creative approach

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New Jersey’s race to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will require herculean effort, steely resolve and a laserlike focus from its leaders if it is to be successful.

Normally, any race with so much at stake would captivate an audience — we’re talking adventure-movie, save-the-planet-type-stuff here — but, alas, that won’t be the case. That’s because the finish line for reaching zero net carbon emissions is 30 years away.

You can’t get people to pay attention to a 30-second YouTube video, much less a contest that will last three decades.

In some ways, it would be better if climate change was an asteroid headed for the boardwalk by Memorial Day weekend. Then we might be able to focus long enough to solve the problem.

Immediate focus, good ideas and action are needed.

Senate Bill 2605, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Smith, would encourage the development of large-scale utility solar farms on actual farmland or in forests. The thinking goes that the next generation of solar farms has to be large enough to generate significant energy — Smith’s bill focuses on farms capable of producing 10 megawatts of energy, enough to power 2,000 homes.

As part of the bill, the Board of Public Utilities would be responsible for developing enough farms through this program to generate 1,500 megawatts by 2026.

The bill also would provide incentives to companies with the goal of reviving New Jersey’s solar economy, which was humming along nicely before state-funded incentives dried up in 2012. Smith, D-Piscataway, would bring back the incentives, reasoning that the state needs to move fast if it is to meet its target deadline.

One such project is already progressing, even without the incentives Smith’s bill proposes. Dakota Power Partners has plans to build a large solar farm in Salem County. The solar panels would be spread out on 800 acres of farmland, leaving room for the farmers’ herd of sheep. It would generate power for 24,000 homes, and $1 million in local tax revenue.

Conservationists and environmentalists are not supportive of Smith’s bill, saying it’s the classic biblical tale of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Cutting down forests or blanketing farm land with solar panels is antithetical to the concept of a green Garden State. While the bill excludes preserved habitat, farmland or fragile coastline, any loss of woodlands or open land seems counterproductive, especially when there would seem to be many alternatives.

What if, instead, lawmakers funded a program to host solar arrays on all the shuttered malls or other retail centers that dot the landscape? There are literally acres of parking lots — Hamilton Township sits on more than 100 acres, while Harbor Square, the former Shore Mall, is surrounded by 73 acres of paving and underused land. Placing solar panels overhead would hardly ruin the aesthetic, and if there are incentives to the mall operators, that might help their economic plight as well.

Creative solutions are everywhere. China has converted some of its roads into solar fields, while the Netherlands has done the same for bike paths. India has placed some of its largest solar farms at airports, a project that could translate well to Atlantic City International Airport, which sits on more than 5,000 acres. Australia is building buses that operate on solar power.

That’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking lawmakers should be encouraging.

So while this is a race we should not turn from, it’s still important to find the best solutions. Lawmakers need to craft the right incentives that will bring the projects we want to see. They’re out there.

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