When Premier Self Storage opened its doors in Egg Harbor Township in early 2007, a business that was powered completely by solar panels seemed like a dream.

The storage facility's owner, Tim Schaeffer, had wanted solar panels on his buildings, but he also wanted to get the construction done so that he could start renting units.

"It had been in the planning stages for so long, (but) the programs for solar were not available at the time," Schaeffer said.

Two-and-a-half years later, electronic messages and hanging banners boast that the storage center is completely powered by solar energy.

According to Schaeffer, it's the only solar-powered storage facility in New Jersey.

New Jersey has had a number of alternative energy success stories. Some are high-profile public projects.

Visitors to Atlantic City are greeted by the turbines at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority's wind farm. Earlier this year, the Atlantic City Convention Center unveiled the largest single-roof solar installation in North America with more than 13,000 panels. And The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey is a local leader in solar energy and geothermal installations.

Other projects, such as Schaeffer's business, are successful on a much smaller level.

However, for all the progress, New Jersey is still a long way from reaching its long-term goal of getting a significant portion of its power from alternative energy.

As these alternative energy possibilities are more understood, so are the hurdles that could slow down New Jersey's alternative energy push significantly.

Long-term goal

At Premier Self Storage, Schaeffer's team had 754 solar panels installed. Each panel has the capacity to generate 210 watts of electricity, giving the facility a total capacity of about 150 kilowatts generated through solar power.

That's enough to supply the electricity needs of about 120 homes.

While impressive for a single solar installation, the figures also demonstrate how far New Jersey is from reaching its solar power goals.

The state's Energy Master Plan calls for about 1,800 megawatts worth of energy, or 12,000 times the capacity of the storage center, to be generated from solar power by the year 2020. This would be enough energy to power half a million homes in New Jersey.

New Jersey currently has 4,000 solar installations producing a total of 93 megawatts of electricity. That's about 5 percent of the state's 2020 goal.

The good news is that most of those installations occurred during the past couple of years.

To meet its long-term goal, New Jersey is going to have to maintain, or even increase, that pace of construction from now until 2020, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Solar rebates have been offered in New Jersey in their current form since 2003, when the state only had six solar installations. While the number of installations has risen dramatically since then, Tittel criticized the state for not permitting investments in community solar energy projects, saying that it could be limiting New Jersey's solar potential.

Currently, residents and businesses in New Jersey are limited to installing solar panels on their properties. In other states, residents and businesses can pool their resources to construct larger solar projects while sharing the costs.

While New Jersey is currently second in the nation in the number of solar installations, Tittel warned that banning such group efforts will hamper the state in the long run.

"Other states are going to blow past us," he said.

There are also financial hurdles to pursuing solar projects.

Schaeffer said that before any rebates or tax credits, the solar panels at Premier Self Storage cost about $1.5 million to install. Schaeffer also said that Commerce Bank, now TD Bank, was the only bank he found that would finance the project.

"The financial aspect was much more challenging than the actual installation," Schaeffer said.

Wind power

Solar projects in New Jersey are not the only ones experiencing hurdles on the way toward the 2020 goals. The state's Energy Master Plan places a lot of emphasis on the importance of offshore wind power, but New Jersey has yet to see any power generated by wind turbines at sea.

Last year, Gov. Jon S. Corzine set a goal of 1,000 megawatts worth of electricity to be generated from offshore wind power by 2012. That's enough electricity to power about 300,000 homes in New Jersey, slightly less than one-tenth of all homes in the state.

Before those turbines can start generating power, a number of studies have to be done. The studies are needed to determine where the winds are the strongest and what environmental impacts these turbines could have on ocean ecology.

Environmentalists have raised concerns that the turbines could have a negative impact on sea life on the Outer Continental Shelf and the many migratory birds who fly along New Jersey's coastline.

The state is performing studies on the ecological impacts of the projects, while the energy companies are performing their own studies on where their turbines should be placed to generate the most electricity.

Each of these studies takes time, and that could push these initial projects back by several years, according to Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for the group Environment New Jersey.

Even the state has delayed the 2012 goal, since the earliest any turbines would begin generating electricity would be 2013.

Some of the delays are beyond the state's control, since the projects are proposed for sites far out to sea in waters controlled by the federal government. However, Elliott said the state could do more by encouraging construction of wind farms in state waters closer to shore, since it would not have to wait for federal approval for the projects.

"We've waited 10 years already," Elliott said. "So let's make it happen."

When completed, the three proposed wind farm projects would generate about 350 megawatts each, which would satisfy the state's original 2012 goal.

However, for all its rhetoric, the state is not rushing to embrace all wind projects. New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection recently announced its oppositon to a wind farm project in the Delaware Bay. The state agency said it could put migratory birds at risk.

Turbines on land

While offshore wind farms may remain several years away, many people are racing to get wind turbines generating electricity on land.

The state's Board of Public Utilities has received a number of proposals for wind projects throughout New Jersey.

Locally, projects have been proposed for sites in Hammonton, Egg Harbor Township, Vineland, Millville, Woodbine, and the Seaville and Tuckahoe sections of Upper Township.

The projects are in the proposal stage and may or may not happen.

One that is definitely happening is a small turbine that is being built at the Landis Sewage Authority in Vineland.

The one turbine was approved in June. Though just a single turbine, it will be enough to power the administration building, according to Dennis Palmer, executive director and chief engineer at the authority. And if he has his way, this turbine will not be the last.

"I would like to go back and file again next year," Palmer said.

Alternative energy is a long-term investment for everyone. Homeowners who install solar panels generally have to wait three to five years before getting their money back. Schaeffer estimates that, even with the rebates he's received, it will take about 15 years for his system to pay for itself.

Schaeffer said the technology will probably get cheaper as it becomes more available, but until that happens, many people's solar and wind power dreams could be left in the dark.

"The technology has not caught up with the idea just yet," Schaeffer said.

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