Growing up in coal country on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Ed Seliga witnessed the ravages of pollution at an early age. “I saw huge clouds of smoke and toxic materials rising into the sky from the plants along the rivers and waste material dumped onto the ground,” he says. “The rivers and creeks were often strangely discolored because of contamination.”
Realizing that society could do better, Seliga participated in the first Earth Day in 1970 at the local campus of Penn State in western Pennsylvania. “This event took an important step in environmental awareness by getting people to recognize that these materials were poisonous and causing illness. It made people acknowledge that something would have to be done,” he says.
Motivated to make a difference, Seliga relocated to New Jersey and enrolled at Princeton University to study civil engineering. Upon graduation, he made Central New Jersey his home and embarked on a decades-long mission to bring environmental change and consciousness to the state and beyond.
Today, Seliga serves as chief operating officer and co-owner of Advanced Solar Products in Flemington. Founded in 1991, it is one of the leading solar design and construction companies on the East Coast. He operates the venture with his partner, Lyle Rawlings, who serves as president and chief executive officer. “Like me, Lyle also grew up in coal country, in nearby West Virginia. We both saw a lot of visible pollution, were sensitive to these issues and wanted to do something about them,” he says.
Together, they built some of the first functioning solar projects in the state. “In the beginning, we were contacted mostly by people who had a strong environmental motive, but over time, people have increasingly seen the economic and health benefits of using solar energy,” he says.
Advanced Solar — which specializes in solar electric systems for commercial and utility companies, not residential clients — has worked with close to 100 public schools in New Jersey and has installed solar systems on roofs and solar fields for a variety of companies, office buildings and warehouses. “I especially enjoy working with schools on solar projects because it saves taxpayer dollars and helps create the presence of a new technology in an educational setting,” Seliga says. “Having solar systems in schools makes kids aware of green employment as the jobs and businesses of the future.”
Advanced Solar’s work and influence extends far and wide: In 2011, it installed one of the largest solar fields in the Northeast to serve a data center in East Windsor and in 2016 and again in 2017 built the largest solar projects in Maine. The company also has become a leader in combining solar systems with battery storage, which is an essential step in creating the electric grid of the future: one that moves beyond deriving power from conventional power plants, Seliga says. “Power will become decentralized,” he explains. “It will be made in many places, stored and used elsewhere when needed. This system will help the electric grid work better and will produce clean energy to address our air quality issues as well as climate change.”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the amount of sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface in 90 minutes is enough to handle the entire world’s energy consumption for a full year. Solar vendors can help residents and businesses calculate how much they’re saving the planet through the emissions they are avoiding. “For example, the solar system I use on my home prevents the burning of enough fossil fuel to eliminate about five tons of carbon dioxide annually,” Seliga says.
Homeowners and businesses that convert to solar power now realize a substantial financial savings as well and may not need to invest their own funds. The Community Solar Energy Pilot Program is a new state initiative from the New Jersey Clean Energy Program that will enable residents and commercial facilities to purchase their electricity from local solar projects. “This is an exciting opportunity that should be available in Bridgewater in the coming year,” Seliga says. “The target is to provide a discount of about 20 percent as compared to conventional utilities. This will be a noticeable savings on utility bills, plus people will have the satisfaction that they are doing their part to keep the air clean. We need to get away from fossil fuels and move toward non-polluting renewable sources that will not create carbon dioxide as we produce the power.”
Working Toward a Greener Garden State
Over the years, Seliga has joined and led a number of initiatives that are striving to make New Jersey a more eco-friendly and sustainable place to live, work, play and learn. Since joining the board of the New Jersey chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council in 2004, he has seen the power of helping companies create, operate and maintain high-performance, energy-efficient and healthy buildings.
The council’s goal is to eliminate toxic materials through better building construction, operation and maintenance. For example, it educates businesses on the importance and value of carefully selecting products like paint and carpeting that use fewer noxious chemicals and about prudent design approaches such as day lighting, which saves money by using less electricity.
The council teaches businesses how to reduce the amount of energy they need. “A little investment in a building’s construction phase — like buying the right windows and heating and cooling systems, using the most efficient LED lighting and having proper insulation — can mean a huge payoff in energy savings over the lifetime of a building,” Seliga says. “Many improvements can also be made to existing buildings, and New Jersey offers funding to help with the process.”
In addition to the state initiatives, there are a number of programs that are helping to make Somerset County more eco-friendly. Sustainable Somerset, which is part of the Somerset County Business Partnership, plans and develops programs focused on clean energy, energy audits, the legal aspects of “going green” and other subjects promoting a brighter, cleaner future, says Seliga, who launched the program and serves as co-chair. Other area programs include The Somerset County Energy Council, which works with the county government to advocate for energy efficiency and conservation and to educate the public on choices regarding energy issues, and RideWise, which promotes safe, sustainable transportation (including electric vehicles) to help reduce the county’s carbon footprint.
Fifty years after participating in the first Earth Day, Seliga helped lead the event’s anniversary celebration in 2020 at Raritan Valley Community College — and now his outlook is brighter. “New Jersey is putting a strong push on addressing climate change, which includes an Energy Master Plan that outlines key strategies to reach the administration’s goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2050. There is also a growing movement in the state to reduce and ultimately eliminate natural gas in facilities,” he says. “It’s encouraging, too, that today many structures are being built to standards requiring green features. When it comes to saving the environment, we can see what needs to be done, and every little bit helps.”