Questions raised about developers’ responsibility to maintain solar
MC Residences will be one of the first developments to have solar.
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
As Montclair pushes developers to include green energy into their building plans, a question has risen: how long are the developers required to maintain it?
One solar expert contends it’s only about 20 years, what he claims is the life of a solar panel.
New developments in the Montclair Center Gateway and Eastern Gateway, as well as those at Mountainside Hospital and Seymour Street, require developers to provide a sustainability plan which may or may not have a solar component, according to Montclair planner Janice Talley.
At a recent planning board meeting in which Pinnacle Cos. presented its required sustainability plan for the new 46-unit development at 33-37 Orange Road, architect and LEED expert Glenn Haydu claimed that when solar is installed there’s no requirement by the town for the developer to replace it after its lifespan.
He contends there isn’t enough room on the 17,000-square-foot rooftop to accommodate the nearly 300 panels needed for the 50 percent solar requirement, along with the required 25 percent green space and 10 percent setback, plans for an amenity space and 46 HVAC systems.
Pinnacle is now proposing that it be permitted to provide 25 percent solar on the roof and purchase the remaining requirements through a renewable energy grid.
Because the lifespan of solar panels is about 20 years, Haydu said, that timeframe should be applied to the developers’ responsibility for buying renewable energy credits, as well.
There’s no requirement for the developer to provide solar or renewable energy in perpetuity, Haydu said, so the lifespan of the panels would represent how long the developer would contract for renewable energy.
Planning board member Carol Willis questioned the 20-year assessment, however.
“You replace a furnace, why not the solar panels?”
The Montclair Center Gateway Redevelopment Plan, which encompasses the MC Residences at 33-37 Orange Road, states that for roofs atop building up to six stories high, at least 50 percent of the roof surface shall include solar panels. The MC Residences will be only four stories.
An amendment to land-use regulations was passed by the mayor and council in August addressing solar in new development, but only in the application process.
“Solar is not a required component,” Talley said. “There is no zoning ordinance requiring solar. The township amended its development application requirements so that if a project includes any alternative energy sources, such as solar, they are identified in the application.
Nothing in the redevelopment plans address renewable energy credits.
What the plan does state is that development within the area is required to obtain certification either through the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy or the Environmental Design (LEED) certification program. If LEED certification is pursued, a minimum of 40 points must be achieved in areas of public transportation access, bicycle storage, low-emitting and fuel-efficient vehicles, parking capacity, roof greenspace, on-site renewable energy and green power.
There are no requirements by Montclair for solar component replacement once it is no longer functioning.
“This is something the planning board is evaluating as part of the application for 37 Orange Road,” Talley said.
Resident and outspoken planning board meeting attendee Frank Rubacky argues that the 20-year life of solar panels should be immaterial to the MC Residences’ LEED standard. Referring to the redevelopment plan, he said LEED design doesn’t expire as long as the building is in operation. "LEED provides a definitive standard for what constitutes a green building in design, construction and operation," the plan states.
Robert Taylor, a professor of Organizational and Urban Sustainability in the Department of Earth & Environmental Studies and Coordinator of the M.S. in Sustainability Science - Sustainability Leadership at Montclair State University, said that MC Residences’ plan to include solar would make a good pilot project for the town. He said there are variables such as if the developer would be using a contractor to install and maintain or if the developer planned to install and maintain the system. He said that MSU contracted out to provide the solar power there.
SO WHAT IS THE LIFE EXPECTANCY?
Taylor said that the life expectancy will depend on the type of panels the developer plans to install.
“More expensive ones are more efficient and last longer. They are are also smaller and don’t take up as much space,” he said, adding that there two sided panels as well.
According to the Northeast Recycling Council, which advocates for responsible recycling of the panels, the life expectancy of solar panels on average is about 30 years before decommissioning.
Engineering.com states that Photovoltaic (PV) panels typically come with 20 year warranties that guarantee the panels will produce at least 80 percent of the rated power after 20 years of use. The general rule of thumb is that panels will degrade by about one percent each year.
But according to a 2012 review of solar panels by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “Photovoltaic Degradation Rates — An Analytical Review,” panels manufactured in 2012 should produce 92 percent of its original power after 20 years.
WHERE SOLAR IS, OR WAS SUPPOSED TO BE
The Orange Road Garage, also built by Pinnacle, when approved by the planning board was expected to hold 40,000 square feet of solar panels. But the developer could not provide the solar panels as proposed in the site plan because the power generated by the solar panels exceeded the demand for the building and they are not permitted by the state to serve as a power source for the grid, said Talley.
Talley did not provide information on when, and by what committee, the change was approved, or what replaced the solar for the project’s LEED accreditation.
At the most recent planning board meeting, Talley suggested, however, that since the garage rooftop was built to contain solar panels, that they now be installed there to power the apartment building, which will be directly next door.
While developers are slow in including solar into their redevelopment plans in Montclair — Montclarion II, near Bay Street Station is listed as the only large development to seek a solar permit — almost 260 residents have sought permits to install panels.
SOLAR IN OTHER STATES
Massachusetts and California require solar on all new developments, including single-family homes. Concerns raised with a solar mandate, include an increase in the cost of construction with a solar component and that the local workforce may not be able to meet the demand.
Solar panels prices have dropped by 32 percent in the last five years. The average cost in New Jersey for a typical 6,000-watt solar residential system is $20,767 before the federal solar tax credit, and $14,537 after claiming the credit, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
While the hard costs (like PV panel prices) for solar systems have dropped, engineering, customer acquisition and permitting costs have become significant barriers to lowering the price of solar installation.
Sustainable Jersey, an organization that aids New Jersey towns to reduce waste, cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve environmental equity through a certification program, suggests towns adopt supportive solar zoning ordinances, along with permitting ordinances with fees that aren’t prohibitive, and streamlined inspection processes.
“Through zoning and permitting rules governing solar power, municipalities can influence how quickly solar power is adopted by local residents and businesses. Reducing ‘soft costs’ related to zoning barriers and streamlining permitting and inspection processes can potentially lower the cost of solar installations and reduce unnecessary delays for consumers,” according to Sustainable NJ.