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N.J. county going solar with unique financing

Morris Model will enable 3.2 megawatts worth of solar panels installed on county property through bonds, federal tax incentives, and power purchase agreement.

Morris County, N.J., plans to install 3.2 megawatts of solar panels on county property roofs with the help of some creative financing, the Morris County Improvement Authority (MCIA) announced Wednesday.

Self-dubbing it the "Morris Model," county officials said in a statement that the project was funded with a unique two-prong approach. Part of it will be paid for with $30 million in county-guaranteed bonds. The rest will be financed in conjunction with the energy utility Tioga Energy, which qualifies for federal solar tax incentives through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

The incentives are not available to municipal renewable energy projects directly, but Tioga Energy will pass on its savings to the county. Through a 15-year power-of-purchase agreement with Tioga Energy, Morris County will purchase any electricity generated from the solar panels at a 35 percent reduced rate.

SunDurance Energy will provide the solar panels and installation services. The installation will consist of 19 properties, including 14 schools, with 1.57 megawatts worth of solar panels to be installed atop the William G. Mennen Sports Arena, a 2,500-seat arena that includes three ice rinks, and an outdoor rugby field.

In addition to the Mennen Arena roof, SunDurance will also install an elevated roof of solar panels to cover its 500-space parking lot. The installation is estimated to supply the arena with 30 percent of its electricity.

When the total solar installation on all buildings is complete, the MCIA predicts the average annual savings in energy bills will be 35 percent for the involved school districts, at least 20 percent for the county.

New Jersey may seem to some an unlikely place to find solar projects. But the state is, in fact, a leader in solar development and clean-tech investment, according to national statistics.

The greater New York metropolitan area (which includes northern New Jersey and Long Island) was ranked No. 3 for clean-tech job activity in 2009, and N.J. itself was ranked 7th by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2009 for states doing the most to wean their residents off oil.

In July 2009, New Jersey approved a program that would install over 200,000 Petra Solar photovoltaic solar panels on existing utility polesowned by utility Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G). As of November 2009, regulators had also approved a total of $248 million in solar loans that PSE&G could offer, which translates into an estimated 81 megawatts worth of solar systems available to interested parties across the state including homeowners.