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Get Your Sustainable Nonsense out of My Backyard

New Jersey residents are getting burned by their local power utility, which began installing unsightly solar panels in residential neighborhoods across the state.

By KIM UKURA, Associate Editor, Product Design & Development (PD&D)

Kim UkuraNot-in-my-backyard whiners have found another admirable cause to champion: Taking out solar panels in New Jersey.

Recently, The New York Times reported that some residents in New Jersey are upset about approximately 200,000 solar panels that have been popping up across residential neighborhoods in the state for about a year. The 5- by 2.5-foot panels are part of a $515 million investment in solar projects by New Jersey’s largest utility, the Public Service Electric and Gas Company. According to The Times, if you laid out the panels like a quilt, they would cover 170 acres.

The article goes on to note that New Jersey is second in the nation in solar power capacity because of financial incentives and public policy pushes (the polite term for a state mandate) for renewable energy. However, instead of being a point of pride for the state, the solar panel push has become a cause for complaints about threats to property values and blocked views in residential neighborhoods.

The horror, the horror.

I initially scoffed at these complaints. Altering the landscape of our energy usage, shifting to more renewable fuels and sources, is a big deal. Complaining about how “ugly” or “hideous” the solar panels are is relatively petty, given the benefits they could have in leading to a more sustainable future.

Maybe that’s not really the point here. Maybe the question is one of design — if the solar panels were somehow “prettier,” would residents still object?

I think solar panels have a subtle elegance about them, especially when compared to the plumes of smoke from power plants. While we’re used to seeing solar panels as part of massive, shiny, futuristic-looking installations on the top of buildings, designers have already proven that’s not the only place they could successfully be placed.

In the May edition of PD&D, associate editor Meaghan Ziemba wrote a story about a New York City-based company called Urban Green Energy. The company has designed a wind/solar hybrid streetlamp — the Sanya — which combines a vertical axis wind turbine and a solar panel to power streetlights off the electric power grid. The lamps are beautiful — tall, sleek, and sustainable.

These lamps — and the many other products being built to support renewable energy — prove that beautiful design and smart solutions can work together if we all put in a little more effort.

In that sense, I think the residents of New Jersey have a right to be upset. Building new products, especially those that will be a permanent part of the landscape, extends beyond functionality. The challenge is to design something elegant that blends with the surrounding area until it becomes so much a part of the view we can’t imagine the horizon without it.

Would you reject or welcome solar panel installations on the power poles near your home? How can more elegant design be incorporated into government-mandated energy projects? Anything you would never, ever allow in your backyard? Leave a comment or email [email protected].