The words “New Jersey” rarely conjure thoughts of environmental leadership. In fact, the state’s reputation gives rise to visions better described by “industrial wasteland” or “toxic miasma.”

Think again. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has recently proposed a major expansion of its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a regulation requiring utilities to buy renewable energy.

The proposed rule would require that 20% of the electricity provided by the state’s utilities come from new renewable energy sources by 2020, up from the current standard of 4% by 2008. This is a major expansion that puts the state in the upper echelon of renewable-energy leaders.

And make no mistake — the environmental impacts would be enormous. Emissions from electricity generation are not only the single largest cause of global warming, but also toxic to human health, killing over 30,000 Americans a year, according to a recent study by Abt Associates. By 2020, this proposal would prevent annual emissions of 15.3 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, 29.1 million pounds of nitrogen oxides, and 44.4 million pounds of sulfur dioxide.

In addition, the proposed rule would require that 2% come from solar-electric resources — a development that would result in about 1,500 MW of solar electricity. To put this in perspective, in 2004 the world market for solar photovoltaics was 927 MW. New Jersey’s effort would be the most ambitious solar program currently on the books in the U.S. (take that, California!), and would go far in building the economies of scale necessary to bring solar into the mainstream.

Traditionally hostile interests are working to squelch this bold proposal. If you are into it, take a moment to tell the BPU Commissioners that their leadership is appreciated, and the proposed expansion of the RPS should be adopted.