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Basking in Sun

Upscale restaurants go solar for energy needs

By Gene Racz, 06/17/07

NEW BRUNSWICK ó The 40-some-odd solar panels on the triangular roof of the Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi restaurants may be hard to spot from street level. But the environmentally-friendly energy system is getting plenty of exposure ó not only from the sun, but from the media.

The upscale eateries ó which share the same co-owners and the same building on the corner of George Street and Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick ó became the first fine-dining establishments in the state to "go solar" for their energy needs.

A few blocks away, on Dennis Street, the Frog and the Peach restaurant has also installed a solar electric system which is up and running.

"One of the mottos of our restaurants is: "We want to do well by doing good'," said Marc Pascal, who co-owns Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi with Francis Schott and Lou Riveiro.

"I'll tell you this, we initially started looking at this as an expense, not as a way of having income," added Pascal. "We wanted to do the right thing and we felt it was our responsibility to investigate these kinds of things. Upon investigating, we saw that the BPU had this great grant program that was available to all businesses."

Through a grant from the state's Clean Energy Program, Pascal said the state reimbursed 66 percent of what was an $83,000, 10-kilowatt-capacity system. The state's available reimbursement grant is now down to about 40 percent on most installations, which is what the Frog and the Peach expects to get on its system which also cost about $80,000. That restaurant also performed structural work on its roof to secure the system, bringing the total cost to about $100,000.

Frog and the Peach owner, Betsy Alger, said the installation of a solar electric system did not make sense from an immediate cost-benefit perspective, but noted that "it has more to do with the long-term, it helps the planet." Alger expects to see payback on the investment in 10 years for her gourmet restaurant which is now celebrating its 25th year in New Brunswick.

Jeanne M. Fox, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, said the state will encourage growth in the number of solar installations. In New Jersey, solar installations projects have mushroomed from merely six in 2001 to over 2,000 today, making the Garden State second to only California in the number of solar power systems installed statewide.

In order to continue to help finance new solar electric systems, the BPU has created a market, or trading system, whereby the PBU issues solar energy credits which can be bought and sold by all electric suppliers in New Jersey. Over time, the BPU anticipates the market value of these credits to rise, generating additional revenues the BPU can use to help finance new solar electric systems.

"We don't want to raise people's rates, but we do want more people to do solar installations," Fox said of the Clean Energy solar rebate program which used to be primarily funded by taxpayers.

Another funding initiative on the horizon to spur continued solar-power installation is a proposed $100 million investment over the next two years by PSE&G for homes, businesses and municipal buildings throughout its service area.

"We hope the proposed program will help make solar power more affordable for businesses as well as for residents and municipalities. . . . No doubt, solar will play a significant role to stop the clock on global warming," said Joe Forline, vice president of customer operations for PSE&G.

State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Edison), who has an environmental bill which is slated to be voted Monday in the budget committee, said she has a commitment from Senate President Richard Codey (D-West Orange) that the bill will pass the Senate and will be signed into law.

Basically, the bill authorizes the Department of Environmental Protection to take an inventory of greenhouse emissions from all sources of origin and then come up with a plan to reduce these emissions to in New Jersey to 1990 levels.

"The clean energy (program) with the BPU really provides the opportunity for businesses and individuals to do the right thing and to have it be cost effective ó make good environmental sense and good economic sense for people," said Buono. "This (solar electric system at Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left) is a stellar example of what businesses and individuals can do on their own to halt global warming."

Schott said using solar energy is a win-win situation.

"The solar panels generate power, and if I'm using more power than they generate, they simply reduce the amount of power that I use; but if I produce more power than I'm using, the power basically gets sold back to PSE&G," said Schott who also hosts The Restaurant Guys Radio Show on WCTC with Pascal. The show addresses issues on food and sustainability.

"The power goes back into the grid and thereby reduces the amount of power that the system has to come up with, and that reduces the amount of power that PSE&G has to buy or generate from plants that produce carbon gases," Schott said. "The system has a meter which figures it out. Now that it's in, I don't ever have to think about it again ó it does it all for me."