In Race for Solar Integration, N.J. Company Takes Pole Position

The ubiquitous utility pole stands proudly as an example of a necessary, yet perhaps unsightly, addition to the modern world. When they were going up, there may have been some groans. But, really, do we even notice them anymore?

Petra Solar is attempting to go the way of the utility pole in an effort to ingrain renewable energy into neighborhoods across its home state of New Jersey. And it’s doing this by jumping onto the back of those poles, quite literally.

The five-year-old solar company is behind a 40-megawatt project being installed for PSE&G, the largest utility in New Jersey. There are no solar farms or sprawling rooftop installations, but rather individual 220-watt modules mounted 15 feet up on utility poles across a wide swath of the state.

In all, PSE&G is halfway through installing between 180,000 and 200,000 units — one pole at a time — in the 300 towns and cities that the utility serves. The individual modules each feed directly into the grid, and they act as independent units. Together through Petra Solar’s software and monitoring network, they form a virtual power plant.

If the same system were ground-mounted in a field, it’d take up 300 acres and vast amounts of time and money for siting, permitting, zoning and interconnection costs.

“It’s an ambitious effort, said Joe Deluca, Vice President of Development and Product Marketing. “We’re on a nationwide and worldwide trek to make it common. We believe some day it may be odd to drive into a neighborhood and not see solar on utility poles and rooftops.

Bright future?

Right now, the project is limited to New Jersey. Company leaders, though, are looking to expand to other markets and eventually across the country. To be able to expand into markets like California, they’ll first need to gain acceptance from utility companies in general, which are used to doing business with large, centralized projects.

“This would not replace what utilities have to do elsewhere,” said Deluca. “It’s not that you wouldn’t do rooftops and farms. This is another way to do it. It’s a matter of utilities seeing it’s bankable and that the technology does have value. If we get a few more utilities convinced, we believe there will be a domino effect.”

To get there, time may be on Petra’s side. As states look for more easily adoptable ways to incorporate renewables into their portfolio, the company hopes they gravitate toward solutions that are less time-consuming and fraught with fewer headaches.

According to Deluca, a subcontractor learns how to install the units, which include a module made by global manufacturers, a company-designed inverter and proprietary communications tools that work with the grid and allow operators to monitor the system as a whole or right down to individual modules. The utility would then operate and maintain the system.

Installers go pole by pole, mounting each unit in about 30 minutes — about 300 per day, or the equivalent of about 1 MW per month. Each unit is commissioned about a half hour after it’s installed, meaning it starts generating power right away, rather than waiting for the whole system to be ready before the switch is flipped.

It’s not all sunny

While the speed has its advantages, the project has run into some local resistance in a handful of towns, according to PSE&G spokesman Fran Sullivan. Bergen County in the northern part of the state has seen the most push-back. The town of Wyckoff has issued a cease and desist order against the installation of the panels after about 20 of the roughly 75 units were put up. The modules remain in place, and PSE&G says it plans on finishing the job despite the objections. To get there, company officials said they are trying to work with the town rather than turn it into a legal matter.

Wyckoff mayor Kevin Rooney declined to comment on the situation in his town, citing ongoing discussions with PSE&G.

“As a matter of fairness, we intend to fully install in every town in our service area,” said Sullivan, who added that a geographic gap in service wouldn’t have any impact on the project.

Sullivan did say that the lone exception they are prepared to make is when towns or cities say it affects the character of a recognized historic district. Otherwise, the company is planning to forge ahead until the project is completed.

There are, however, lessons to be learned for other utilities looking to take on such a project.

“Other utilities may see it as a viable option, but they may want to take a look at some of the things we’ve learned and realize that maybe you need to pave the way a little more. But this has clearly demonstrated to be a viable technology, and it’s a good way to install high volumes of solar in a densely populated area.”

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