Going Green

The Garden State is cleaning up its energy act, one town at a time.

Long the highest structure in Ocean Gate, the water tower has been exceeded by the borough’s wind turbine, installed last October, which provides much of the power for the town hall.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Until last October, the tallest structure in Ocean Gate was the water tower. Reaching 138 feet into the air, the gray steel tank was the sole silhouette rising above the town’s tree line.

But now a second structure punctuates the skyline. A town-owned wind turbine, it eclipses the water tower by seven feet and looms large over the one-story bungalows that line Ocean Gate’s streets.

The turbine has become a point of pride for residents of this sleepy Barnegat Bay community. It’s the first in New Jersey created and owned by a municipality. With its construction, the people of Ocean Gate see themselves as having taken a considerable step toward not just reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, but also saving some serious cash and helping the country work toward energy independence from foreign sources.

By this fall, Ocean Gate should have a second wind turbine installed. Once it’s running, more than half the town’s municipal electricity needs—for the firehouse, municipal building, community center, and water treatment plant—will be provided by renewable energy. How did a half-square-mile town of 2,200 people with only two restaurants, a deli, a beauty parlor, and an auto body shop find itself at the forefront of the green revolution?

It started as a matter of money. Faced with fuel costs that had climbed 40 percent between 2006 and 2009, the town could no longer afford to pay its bills.

Next came a growing sense that climate change is real—and that federal lawmakers are doing little to stop it. The town has reason to worry. Its proximity to the Shore makes it particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and hurricanes, both likely influenced by global warming.

Then there was the matter of timing. Thanks to the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—better known as the stimulus bill—an unprecedented amount of federal funding became available last year for renewable energy projects. New Jersey, too, has been stepping up financial support for such projects to meet a nearly three-year-old statewide mandate to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. Ocean Gate officials are taking advantage of these subsidies to make the turbines more affordable.
“A lot of things came together for us,” says Paul Kennedy, the town’s mayor. “People have opened their eyes to the benefits of wind power, but even more than that, they’re thinking about how to be more environmentally friendly because it benefits us on a lot of levels.”

The turbine does have its detractors. But residents who feel the project is a costly eyesore that makes an annoying noise seem to be in the minority.

Across New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, hundreds of cities and towns are turning similar sets of circumstances into opportunities to help the environment and their bottom lines. Efforts to curb carbon emissions are bubbling up from the local level at a time when some national politicians are still debating whether global warming is caused by humans.

Some of these efforts are small—like turning off computers in municipal offices at night—and require little to no investment. Others, like erecting wind turbines, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and require years of planning. Details vary from place to place, yet it’s clear the Garden State is going green, one municipality at a time:

• West Windsor has created bike paths and upgraded crosswalks to encourage residents to leave their cars at home.

• Woodbine has done an energy audit of its municipal buildings and its school district, and is installing solar panels on its two schools.

• Montclair has upgraded all 112 of its traffic lights from halogen bulbs to more efficient light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, and now saves $10,000 a year in energy costs. It is completing a state-of-the-art green school building fitted with solar panels and a geothermal heating and cooling system.

• Belmar has replaced its gasoline-powered scooters, for parking enforcement and boardwalk security, with low-speed, zero-emission vehicles.

• Woodbridge has purchased hybrid vehicles for its municipal fleet and is changing its zoning ordinances to attract green businesses.

• Hamilton has converted several of its municipal vehicles to run on biodiesel, a blend of soy oil and petroleum products.

“A little bit of change here, a little bit there, and it all adds up,” says Richard Balgowan, director of public works for Hamilton.

Cherry Hill has been particularly aggressive. The town has a ten-point green action plan that includes purchasing hybrid vehicles, installing a 100-kilowatt solar-panel system on the town hall (paid for by stimulus and state grant money), and rerouting Internet server space to save energy.

Reducing traffic is also a major goal for Cherry Hill, where crowded roads degrade the environment and raise quality-of-life issues. This community of 75,000 swells to more than 250,000 during the workday. Driving down Route 70, the main road that connects Philadelphia to the Jersey Shore, the congestion is plain to see.

Roughly 60,000 vehicles use the road every day; during rush hour it’s not uncommon to wait two or three traffic-light cycles to get through the busiest intersections. Cars are constantly entering and exiting both sides of the highway from strip malls. On one side of the highway, within just a few blocks of each other, there’s a Starbucks, a Subway sandwich shop, a Goodyear tire store, a Fed Ex store, and an Allstate Insurance agency. On the other, there’s a Dunkin Donuts, a Lukoil gas station, a Dodge dealership, and a Famous Dave’s Barbeque. The urban sprawl goes on for miles.

That’s why, since September, Cherry Hill has been pushing the state’s Live Where You Work program, which provides low-interest mortgages and closing-cost subsidies for first-time buyers choosing to purchase a home in the town where they are employed. “If there are less people commuting far distances to get to work, then there are less carbon emissions from people sitting at traffic lights and traveling an extra ten miles,” says Dan Keashen, chief of staff to the town’s mayor.

These local projects are an encouraging sign for the environmental movement. Climate scientists and public-policy experts from around the country have endeavored to win strict emission standards from the federal government as well as legislation that would end subsidies to fossil-fuel producers. Their efforts have mostly been met by a slow-moving Congress, which faces pressure from agricultural, coal, and oil interests opposed to tougher regulation. Globally, a major disappointment came in December in Copenhagen when world leaders failed to reach agreement on binding carbon reductions.

Since 2005, 108 New Jersey municipalities have signed onto the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and pledged to meet the Kyoto Protocols—an international treaty that sets strict carbon emission-reduction goals. In the same period, 82 communities joined the Sierra Club’s Cool Cities Campaign, pledging to reduce their carbon footprints. Thirteen now belong to Local Governments for Sustainability, an international group dedicated to similar goals. And more than 250 cities and towns have become members of Sustainable Jersey, a year-old program designed to help local governments curb greenhouse gas emissions and promote environmentalism.

“What you’re seeing is cities and towns in New Jersey, but also hundreds across the United States taking action because, to a large extent, the federal government is not,” says Lexi Shultz, director of advocacy for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonpartisan analysis and advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Though most cities and towns in the Garden State are experiencing painful budget crunches, they continue to set aside funds for projects intended to save money in the long run. In addition, they are taking advantage of the $149 million in stimulus money allocated to New Jersey for energy efficiency and conservation.

In 2007, New Jersey adopted strict mandates that require an 80 percent reduction of carbon emissions from 2006 levels by 2050. To accomplish this, state agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Bureau of Public Utilities (BPU) have made millions of dollars available to towns for renewable energy, home weatherization, and the purchase of hybrid vehicles. Time will tell if Governor Chris Christie continues encouraging these programs. As a candidate, Christie made wind and solar energy a key part of his platform, proposing tax breaks for companies that build wind turbines in New Jersey. He also advocated for the use of solar panels at the more than 800 landfills across the state.

For Ken Pringle, mayor of Belmar, another small coastal town considering an investment in wind power, it makes sense that so many municipal governments are taking on climate change and succeeding in getting citizens involved. Changing thermostat settings, choosing a fuel efficient car, purchasing an energy-efficient oven—all these are individual decisions that can be influenced at the local level.

“When we talk about reducing greenhouse gases, what we’re really talking about is changing people’s attitude and behavior,” says Pringle, a lifelong Belmar resident who was elected in 1990. “Towns are uniquely qualified to do this because we interact with our constituents on a more individualized level and can talk with them about what makes sense for the community. It’s not a mandate from on high or a one-size-fits-all solution.”

In Ocean Gate, installing the turbine had more to do at first with economics than environmentalism. The project started about three years ago, shortly after Kennedy took office as mayor. Rising health care and fuel costs were squeezing already limited finances, and he worried that raising property taxes or cutting services would set off a firestorm of protest.

Wind power offered an appealing, if untested, opportunity. To construct the first turbine, Ocean Gate put up $325,000—more than one-tenth of its average annual budget. But the turbine is expected to generate enough electricity to power about 80 percent of the town hall’s energy needs and in the process save at least $20,000 in annual utility costs over the next three decades. To help matters, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities approved more than $100,000 in rebates through its Clean Energy Program.

The second turbine, which will power the water treatment plant, firehouse, and community center, is expected to cost $386,000. The town will get $326,000 of that money back from state and federal stimulus grants, plus see another $20,000 in energy savings every year.

Kennedy used these statistics to justify the project to his constituents. Soon, however, the focus shifted to the non-financial benefits the turbines could offer. In one year alone, they will prevent about 160 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, according to independent energy experts. That’s equivalent to burning roughly 16,000 fewer gallons of gasoline. With that, Kennedy’s campaign morphed into a way to fight global warming.

Ocean Gate’s schools have begun using the turbines to educate students on sustainability and alternate energy sources. The school district is now considering putting solar panels on its buildings. Town officials are encouraging homeowners to buy Energy Star appliances that meet federal guidelines for energy efficiency. Residents have replaced nearly 1,000 incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescents. The police chief may even add hybrid vehicles to his fleet.

“The turbine really just became something bigger, a symbol almost,” Kennedy says. “Before it, we didn’t have many—really any—programs to reduce our energy consumption, but we live in a beachfront community, so people here are trying to do something about climate change. Once we saw what we could do for the environment, it opened the floodgates.”

Much of the momentum is being channeled by a relatively new certification program for municipalities called Sustainable Jersey. The program, whose key sponsors include Rutgers, the DEP, and the BPU, brings together a broad coalition in partnership with the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the Mayors’ Committee for a Green Future. Towns earn points by implementing programs from an approved list of environmentally friendly actions. Once the town completes enough steps, it is certified as a sustainable community and can become eligible for grants to offset the cost of certain projects.

“For a long time, there’s been a lot of support at the local level for going green and being sustainable and addressing global warming, but local governments don’t have a lot of expertise or resources,” says Randall Solomon, executive director of the New Jersey Sustainable State Institute at Rutgers, one of the sponsors of Sustainable Jersey. “Often their ambitions don’t match their capacity. What Sustainable Jersey does is provide a roadmap and a suite of financial and technical resources to help municipalities move forward.”

Sustainable Jersey capitalizes on the state’s long history of environmental awareness. In the mid 1970s, residents in towns like Maplewood and Montclair began some of the first private recycling programs—well ahead of the state and other towns across the U.S. In the late 1980s, New Jersey residents once again mobilized because tons of trash—including hypodermic needles—began washing up on the shore. In recent years, as scientists increasingly united around the idea that humans are contributing to global warming, action at the local level has increased.

About 70 miles north of Ocean Gate, global warming has become a hot topic in Maplewood, a bedroom community of 24,000. In 2006, it became one of the first towns in New Jersey to develop a plan to reduce its carbon emissions, committing to a 20 percent reduction in its footprint by 2015—five years faster than the state mandate. In 2007 and 2008, the town decreased its electricity consumption by 6 percent. In 2007, when the EPA’s Change a Light bus tour came through, residents pledged to change more than 5,500 incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents. To promote fuel efficiency, residents get a 25 percent discount on commuter parking if they own a vehicle that gets at least 34 miles to the gallon. In 2008, the town adopted an anti-idling ordinance.

Maplewood won Sustainable Jersey’s inaugural Leadership Award last November. Fred Profeta, deputy mayor for the environment and a key founder of Sustainable Jersey, presented the plaque to the town’s Environmental Advisory Committee. Pulling the mahogany plaque out of a reusable Whole Foods tote, he read the inscription on the back: “One hundred percent of the energy used in the production of this award was offset through our energy provider’s carbon offset program.”

But perhaps the more important message was on the front, where a green glass inlay read, “A Better Tomorrow, One Community at a Time.”

Laura M. Colarusso is a Boston-based freelance writer.

Click on the links below to view Best Places to Live-related articles:

Best Places to Live

In It Together

High Life, Low Taxes

The Contenders

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.