Sun Power, Pole by Pole

It has taken some 80 years, but a dream of Thomas Edison’s—to harness the power of the sun—is coming to greater fruition in New Jersey.

Public Service Electric & Gas Co., the state’s largest power supplier, is nearing completion of a program to mount 175,000 solar panels on utility poles along highways and residential streets. Those involved with the $200 million project say it’s the largest installation of its type in the world.

The last of the 3-by-5-foot solar panels—which weigh about 25 pounds and are mounted on angles part-way up the poles to maximize exposure to the sun—is scheduled to be installed in early April. The panels were going up at a rate of 300 a day until Sandy interrupted the process. Some 120 solar poles were damaged by the storm, according to utility spokesman Michael Jennings.

The combined energy generated by the panels, 40 megawatts, would be able to power more than 6,000 homes, according to the utility.

“The beauty of the panels is that there are no capital costs—we already own the poles,” said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G, a unit of Public Service Enterprise Group.

The company also is building solar farms on the sites of abandoned factories, brown fields and closed landfills.

Edison, the inventor who was long based in New Jersey, believed in the promise of alternative power sources to oil and coal. “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy—sun, wind and tide,” he was quoted as saying in the early 1930s, adding: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy.”

The power generated by the pole panels doesn’t actually go to homes or businesses nearby but is fed into the electrical grid system, contributing to the overall supply for general distribution to customers. The same is true of the solar farms in New Jersey operated by the utility in Kearny, Trenton and Hackensack, which went on line in October.

One reason for the solar explosion is because New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities has ruled that the state’s utilities must produce 3.5% of their output with solar by 2021.
The utility says there have been a few complaints about the proliferation of panels, described by a PSE&G staffer as “jewels on a pole.” Mr. LaRossa said most people he talks to are curious and happy that the protracted discussions about solar energy are finally becoming a reality.

The installation of the pole panels is being handled by Riggs Distler & Co., based in Cherry Hill, which added 30 two-man crews to get the job done. Using cherry pickers (nicknamed solar pickers for the job) to work with live electricity, the crews mix modern technology with old-fashioned tools, in this case rope pulleys to hoist the panels to the pole.

Others are also involved in the solar push. In a corporate park in South Plainfield, N.J., off Interstate 287, engineers and planners at technology provider Petra Solar regulate how the power goes into the grid. Minute by minute with wireless boxes attached to each panel, they can receive updates on power and performance data from the equipped poles. The company calls the 40-megawatt installation “the largest distributed solar electric project being deployed in the world today.”

Shihab Kuran, the founder, president and chief executive of Petra Solar, said the company is now assembling panels in South Plainfield for sale to Saudi Arabia.

In a conference call from what he described as “the middle of the desert” in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Kuran said: “Within the next 20 years, the Saudis will run out of oil to export because they will need it all for themselves.”
The company also is currently in the first phase of the deployment of smart solar systems on 20,000 rooftops in Jordan. Mr. Kuran said such projects are a far cry from the early days of his company, founded in 2006, when he faced hurdles such as finding local talent, applying for Department of Energy grants, dealing with multiple layers of bureaucracy for approvals and convincing regulators that his system could do the job.

“There were at least 50 times when I thought to myself: ‘This might never get off the ground,'” he said.

Going forward, PSE&G’s Mr. LaRossa said the main issue for solar is finding ways to store the energy generated by the sun. “Somewhere, as we speak, there is another Steve Jobs sitting in a garage tinkering with equipment to figure it all out,” he said.

Source: Petra Solar

For more information on: Petra Solar