New Jersey, Oregon Residents Pay Dearly for Solar Street Signs and Lights

Published November 1, 2008

Citizens in New Jersey and Oregon are paying a steep price for solar-powered street signs and street lights as city and state officials divert scarce taxpayer dollars to the expensive “green” luxuries.

$28,000 Street Sign

Paterson, New Jersey has announced plans to install solar-powered street signs at 25 intersections. The signs will cost as much as $30,000 per intersection.

A pilot sign has been donated by MSD Visual, a signage and graphic design firm with offices in New York City. The MSD street sign lights up at night, spelling out the street name with very small lights. The sign is powered by four solar batteries that can keep it operating through 21 days of cloudiness.

Had it not been donated by MSD, the pilot sign would have cost the city $28,000 plus installation fees of $300.

Safety Concerns Cited

“Instead of being concerned about the street name—if you are trying to find a specific street—and not paying attention to the cars and operators around you, you can see it very clearly and be focused on your driving,” Kevin Cherashore, vice president of sales for MSD Visual, told the North Jersey Record for an August 16 story.

The city has already begun installing 11 solar-powered stop signs at intersections with abnormally high accident rates. The signs are designed to catch motorists’ attention by using flashing lights to spell out the word “STOP.”

State Taxpayers Foot Bill

The State of New Jersey, through an Urban Enterprise Zone grant, will pick up the bill for the street signs. Neither the City of Paterson nor the State of New Jersey provided figures for what it would have cost to use conventional power to light up signs.

New Jersey, with its northern location and significant cloudiness, is among the states least-suited for solar energy, analysts note.

“Even in the best of locations, the expense of solar-powered street signs is hard to justify,” said Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis. “Given the location and weather of New Jersey, it is even harder to justify.

“People should consider that there is only a finite amount of state funds available for the needs of state citizens, and wasting tens of thousands of dollars on a single street sign means that same amount of money is being taken away from health care, education, and other important programs,” Burnett added. “How many people could you have fed at a homeless shelter for the price of just one solar street sign?”

Costly Lights in Oregon

Across the country in another relatively sunlight-deprived area, the Oregon Department of Transportation is installing a major solar panel array at a highway intersection near Tualatin, a few miles south of Portland.

The solar panels will be placed in rows 5 feet wide and 600 feet long at the interchange of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. State officials expect the solar panels to provide 28 percent of the power needed to operate streetlights at the interchange. The costs associated with the project are expected be in the neighborhood of $1 million.

“These are the kinds of economic opportunities that we are creating for all of Oregon as a result of our commitment to an energy-independent Oregon,” Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) explained at an August 7 press conference at the interchange.

Oregon state officials are proposing still more solar projects like the I-5/I-205 one. Some of the money will be allocated from federal tax revenues in the form of federal tax credits.

Outsiders Paying the Price

The cloud cover and northern location of western Oregon pose some of the same problems as in New Jersey. Solar projects deliver far less energy for the money in cloudy, northern locations.

“It is bad enough when wasteful programs like this are being paid for by the citizens of the resident state. It is still worse that people outside of Oregon in fiscally responsible states are being forced to pony up much of the money for this boondoggle,” said Burnett.

“I am not sure what kinds of ‘economic opportunities’ Gov. Kulongoski is talking about, but forcing people to needlessly pay $1 million to provide less than a third of the energy for a single highway interchange is not the kind of economic bargain that safeguards taxpayer funds,” Burnett added.

John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D. ([email protected]) is a member of the civilian emergency medicine faculty at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Hood, Texas, and a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute and the American Council on Science and Health.