LAWRENCE TOWNSHIP - The solar panels - more than 11,000 of them - sit on two sites and 13 acres next to the Santa Sweets tomato-packing plant in Cedarville. Rows of them glisten in the morning sun, directly in line with its daily path.
The 2-megawatt solar farm was dedicated Tuesday morning by representatives of the international tomato grower and various state officials, all extolling the virtues of using green technology to better compete in business while being responsible.
Santa Sweets Chief Operating Officer J.M. Procacci said the energy produced by the solar farm is capable of providing enough power to run the 200,000-square foot tomato-packing plan and its refrigerators without any additional energy.
The nearly $10 million project, funded through private investment, grant funding and federal tax credits, is estimated to save Santa Sweets between $150,000 and $180,000 every year in energy costs.
In addition to environmental benefits such as reducing the plant's carbon footprint, it also provides Santa Sweets with energy freedom, allowing the grower to free itself from rising energy costs.
"From clean energy to recycling nearly everything on the farm, helping the environment is not only paramount in our daily operations and company philosophy, but is a principle that guides all of our activities," Procacci said.
Santa Sweets grows tomatoes and specializes in heirloom and grape tomato varieties. The grower has farms throughout the country, including more than 500 acres in Cedarville, as well as farms in both Mexico and Puerto Rico.
The solar farm was conceived in August of 2009, with the first, smaller section of the new solar operation going online at the end of that year. Bob Goodwin, director of facilities at Santa Sweets, said the solar farm was designed to operate at 90 percent efficiency but is currently operating at over 100 percent. That figure could come down during the winter months, however.
Assistant Secretary of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture Al Murray said that massive energy costs have made energy alternatives like solar more than viable for the state's growers.
"The technology used in farming today rivals that of NASA," he said, noting that new technology is necessary to compete on a global level.
Though the dedication was ultimately a celebration of new, green technology, it was also a forum to rail against farmers who are considering abandoning their trade in favor of developing large solar farms.
Procacci said the idea of making a quick buck by replacing locally grown fruits and vegetables could spell disaster for the area in the future. The land his solar farm sits on is either too close to the plant to grow crops or is designated for stormwater runoff, he said.
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, was on hand at the event and echoed Procacci's sentiments by saying solar represents a commitment to the future but that farmers need to understand the ramifications of replacing a field of produce with a field of solar panels.
Procacci said the identity of southern New Jersey needs to be preserved.
"South Jersey is the first salad bowl of the nation, not Salinas," he said, objecting to the California community's title of Salad Bowl of the World. "There are projects where there are acres and acres of photovoltaic panels being created on arable land. We can't have this if we want to be sustainable."
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