Back in 1907, a paper mill was built in the borough of Milford, New Jersey, to take lumber, turn it into pulp and process that into food-grade paper. This mill operated until the 1990s, changing names and ownership several times before being abandoned and shuttered entirely in 2003.
Fifteen years after the Milford paper mill officially closed shop, the site was developed for a solar project by New Jersey-based CEP Renewables, taking a post-industrial site and making it a power plant for the nearby community and greater Hunterdon County.
Recent clarifications on energy community tax adders in the Inflation Reduction Act could incentivize more projects to be built on sites like the paper mill in Milford. Land that is designated as a landfill, brownfield, Superfund site or retired fossil fuel plant is potentially eligible for solar project subsidies and the job creation and tax benefits that accompany these developments.
Although, it was built prior to energy community credits, the Milford paper mill array highlights the economic and environmental potential these types of solar projects pose for communities.
“One of the biggest impacts is the property getting back on the tax roll,” said Chris Ichter, executive VP of CEP Renewables. “A property that’s sitting there as a liability then turns into an income-producing asset. That’s a huge thing for the community, having power being made locally.”
But turning an abandoned paper mill into a two-phase, 17-MW solar project was no small feat. The property was designated a brownfield by the New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), due to “unpermitted discharges” of environmentally harmful substances. The Environmental Protection Agency determined that much of the site was contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyls, a carcinogenic chemical capable of lingering in soil, air and water without breaking down. Some of the groundwater on the property was found to be contaminated by other cancer-causing and toxic chemicals, as well.
When the paper mill was in operation, irrigation pipes buried beneath the buildings and surrounding fields sprayed effluent byproduct generated from paper processing onto the land, rendering the area unsuitable for most types of construction.
“Who wants to live on a property that’s deed-noticed because it used to be basically a spray field for contaminants?” Ichter said.
CEP Renewables hired CS Energy of New Jersey to build the array, because the solar contractor had worked with the developer on previous projects and had prior experience installing on brownfield and landfill sites.
“I don’t know what’s out of the ordinary [for brownfields], because every one of these projects is so extraordinary to try to get done,” Ichter said. “It’s almost like nothing surprises us at this point.”
In the years preceding solar development, the paper mill facilities were demolished, leaving only concrete slabs to indicate where several buildings once stood. The EPA conducted site evaluations resulting in soil remediation, proper facility closures and water treatments.
CS Energy had to cover the contaminated fields with a 6-in. cap of EPA-approved topsoil so equipment and solar installers could safely work on the land. This solar project was built in two phases, and during construction of the second, truckloads of soil were coming to the site daily to cover the 23 acres that would host the array.
Unlike a capped landfill project where non-penetrative ballasts are typically used for the system’s foundations, CS Energy was able to drive piles into the ground to build this solar array, with the caveat that installers could only scrape 6 in. deep into that cap of topsoil. The NJDEP required that construction “does not exacerbate the contamination at the property” or affect any of the prior remediation conducted on the site, including the ground beneath that soil-cap.
The ground itself was rife with rocks that caused many post refusals and even damaged some machinery used for installation. Operating heavy machinery on the site made ruts in the ground, and installers had to carefully break and remove rocks to drive the posts. With all these delicate site conditions to maintain, CEP and CS had to coordinate with environmental agencies weekly to ensure contaminants remained contained.
“In terms of contractors, because we’ve been through this process so many times, the stuff that would probably scare the crap out of other people is par for the course for us,” Ichter said. “None of this is easy, it’s just that these folks are good at what they do.”
The first phase of the Milford paper mill solar project was completed in 2019. Shortly after, CEP submitted another application to expand the solar farm on a separate section of the paper mill property. Construction on the second phase began in 2020 and was completed in summer 2022.
Since it was a two-phase solar project, the contractors had the advantage of tying into an existing regional interconnection point maintained by Jersey Central Power & Light that was established on the first phase of the project. During construction, the first array had to be powered down, so it was not producing power for the system owner, but CEP avoided much of the usual tedious interconnection process.
“The reason why phase two was able to be constructed essentially within two years of the completion of phase one is that phase two was treated as an upgrade … which basically means that you’re not asking for a new interconnection. You’re just adding additional capacity to an existing interconnection,” Ichter said.
The array itself is composed of about 20,000 solar modules from Boviet Solar. About 14,000 are 370-W monofacial modules and the remainder are 450-W bifacial modules. They’re attached to Terrasmart fixed-fixed tilt racking and use 37 DC combiner boxes from its power electronics subsidiary, SolarBOS. The system uses two central inverters from TMEIC, the first rated at 2,520 kW and the second at 4,200 kW.
NJR Clean Energy Ventures, a subsidiary of natural gas utility New Jersey Resources, acquired this solar project in 2021 and oversaw the second phase of construction. The array is now serving its regional customer base.
“Not only do projects like this help support clean energy and emission reduction public policy goals, it also helps revitalize constrained space by turning it into clean energy,” said Garrett Lerner, managing director of development and finance at NJR Clean Energy Ventures. “Any time we can transform and repurpose underutilized space to produce clean, renewable energy to benefit customers and communities, it is win-win.”
Plenty of unique opportunities remain for solar to be installed on contaminated land like the Milford paper mill, where other types of construction wouldn’t work. Residents that live near the former paper mill no longer see the remnants of an industry that left its community. Instead, they see the results of a new one entering.
“The impact is tangible in the sense that there’s a real impact happening in the community,” said Marc Chernin, project manager at CS Energy. “Not only for CS Energy, but the community, the township, the municipality, has something to operate and maintain for the next 20 years.”