US Landfills Get Second Life as Sun Farms

Wchicken coops are covered and grassed, they have the appearance of abundant, rolling hills. Despite their green appearance, however, these sites are known as “brown fields” – an expression for an environmentally hazardous site with no promising future. Indeed, landfills are typically irrational for development because the contents below the surface are both contaminated and physically unstable.

But what they can be reused for is solar farms, and these so-called “bright fields” are growing in number and size.

Last year, local governments across the United States announced a combined 207 megawatts of energy from 21 landfill solar projects, according to recent figures from the World Resource Institute and RMI, an organization that promotes clean energy projects. That’s a 10-fold increase in energy capacity compared to recent years, and it includes the three largest projects in the country to date.

The increase reflects a growing interest among municipalities to develop increasingly ambitious clean energy projects. For example, one light field deal in Columbus, Ohio, announced last September, will generate 50 megawatts of energy. Another project of similar capacity, announced in January 2021, is being developed on a 240-acre landfill in Houston, Texas. Those two projects account for half of the bright field energy announced last year, and each will power about 5,000 homes a year.

While it is not unheard of for covered landfills to become parks or golf courses, solar farms may be a more viable alternative, as there is no need to prepare or maintain the site to accommodate the public. Sun farms can also take advantage of resources that usually exist near landfills already, such as access roads and connections to electrical infrastructure. And unlike golf courses, bright fields utilize a clean energy source that can be distributed to a wide population, thus helping to correct environmental injustices that people living near the landfill have endured.

On a national scale, there is huge potential in these projects. Based on RMI light field analysis By late 2021, closed landfills could hold more than 60 gigawatts of solar capacity – enough energy to power the state of South Carolina.

But getting there will take time. Bright fields require different forecasts and regulatory oversight than other solar projects due to the nature of the land on which they sit. “There’s more diligence, there’s more design and engineering, and time for people who have to plan this enough,” says Matthew Popkin, manager of urban transformation at RMI. “If you put a stake in the grass in a random field, the dirt could suffer. If you put a bad investment in a landfill, the community could suffer. “

However, there are ways to ease those barriers. Large-scale projects can be more attractive because it is cheaper and easier to get through these planning processes once for a massive solar farm than many times for smaller farms. The federal government and state governments also offer subsidies for cleaning up brownfields, which can offset the cost. Eventually, costs could decrease over time as the solar industry gains experience and refines best practices for managing and implementing future light-field projects, such as using facilities that do not penetrate the ground.

“Local governments are really pushing their clean energy goals,” Popkin says. “And of course, you can put 200 kilowatts on your town hall. You can put it on a number of facilities, buildings or fire stations. But when you start looking at municipally owned land that is in your control and that can accommodate a large project, suddenly a brownfield or closed landfill looks very attractive because it can’t be used for … housing, mixed-use apartments. , or the next Walmart or Target store. “

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