The sun shines brighter in New Jersey

If Govs. Corbett and Christie were in a race to embrace solar energy, it would be Christie who needs to slather on the SPF-50 sunscreen. As for Corbett and Pennsylvania lawmakers, they still need to work on their tans.

The New Jersey governor earned bragging rights recently by signing legislation that could revive his state’s efforts to expand its capacity for solar-generated electricity, which is already second only to California’s.

The measure, cosponsored by state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), calls for an impressive doubling of the overall percentage of solar power that New Jersey utilities must offer their customers over the next decade and a half.

On the heels of that move, the state’s largest utility, Public Service Electric & Gas Co., announced plans to build solar installations capable of powering some 20,000 homes. Just as important, the utility’s Solar 4 All program would target solar-panel installations to landfills, former industrial brownfields, warehouse roofs, and parking lots — rather than gobbling up scarce open space.

The developments let Christie bask in the spotlight while attending PSE&G’s groundbreaking last week at a planned solar farm on an old industrial site in Hackensack. The governor boasted that his state would “continue to lead the way” on renewable energy, even as some environmental activists were pointing out ways that Trenton should be even more forward-looking.

In a state considered “built out” — much less one that goes by the nickname Garden State — the governor and state lawmakers certainly could have written stronger legislative language to discourage building more solar farms on actual farms. Since the legislation creates new opportunities for solar, especially in South Jersey, it could well put farmland at risk unnecessarily.

The best hope now is that state utility regulators will discourage large solar installations on farmland when these proposals come before them for required approval, thus steering most solar developments to industrial, rooftop, and parking-lot settings, which won’t make New Jersey less green.

In comparision to the pace of moving ahead with solar energy in Pennsylvania, however, New Jersey has the clear lead. For more than a year, Pennsylvania House leaders have acted as if they were wearing blinders when it comes to the need to boost the state’s use of sun-derived power.

Pennsylvania’s modest goal to have 0.5 percent of its electricity come from the sun in about a decade is too low to drive demand for more solar installations, which means the solar-industry jobs that sprang up in recent years are at risk. It also means the state’s air quality will continue to suffer, given the potential of solar to reduce the reliance on coal-generated electricity.

It’s no coincidence that coal producers, along with big utilities, have been the ones to stall efforts to increase Pennsylvania’s solar standard, as Jersey has done.

Even a proposal from State Rep. Chris Ross (R., Chester) to accelerate the pace of the move to attain the 0.5 percent goal has been stalled. That’s especially wrongheaded in the midst of a blazing summer season when solar could be helping utilities cope with spikes in demand for power and, most importantly, assure against damaging blackouts. For Harrisburg lawmakers to see the light, they need only look to Trenton.