Photos courtesy of CEP Renewables

New Jersey has the most Superfund sites in the United States at 105, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Recently, seven of those sites received funding for cleanup through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law November 2021. As a result, new opportunities have arisen for these sites once they have been remediated. For some of these sites, that opportunity could be in the form of a solar farm.

Last year, CEP Renewables—a solar power company based in Red Bank, New Jersey—announced it was constructing the largest landfill solar project in the U.S. The $40 million solar farm at the former Combe Fill North Landfill Superfund site is expected to produce 25.6 megawatts of electricity and power 4,000 homes in and around Mount Olive Township once completed.

“Finding the right place to put a solar farm is important,” says Gary Cicero, CEO of CEP Renewables. “We are using land that would have otherwise remained unused and providing a benefit for the people in the surrounding area.”

While work on the project began in August 2021, Cicero and the company’s lawyer, Steven Gouin, who oversees all of CEP’s projects, say the farm took years of planning and approvals before any work could begin.

Creating incentive

The Mount Olive property served as a landfill from 1966 to 1981 but wasn’t properly closed when the owner, Combe Fill Corp., went bankrupt and abandoned the property. During the time it was closed, the waste in the landfill leached into the soil and surrounding water.

In 1982, the landfill was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites. While the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) remediated the site in 1991, it sat untouched until 2004 when the EPA began its $40 million cleanup.

The solar project at the site was inspired by the state’s Solar Act of 2012, which discourages the use of farmland for solar farms. This prompted developers to look to brownfields, former landfills and historic fills. At first, the site of the former landfill was intended to become a warehouse, but the NJDEP shut down that project. The agency instead suggested approaching a solar company that was interested in building a solar farm, Gouin says.

Cicero’s company, which specializes in building solar projects on contaminated properties, was approached by Mount Olive Township with the idea of building the solar farm. Now Cicero says the project will contribute significantly to the state’s renewable energy mandate, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in 2018. The mandate requires 21 percent of the energy sold in New Jersey to be from Class I renewable energy sources by 2020. That amount increases to 35 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030.

“This is made possible with Gov. Murphy’s renewable energy plan.” – Gary Cicero, CEO, CEP Renewables

Careful construction

The project broke ground in August 2021 and is being overseen by New Jersey Resources, a natural gas and clean energy services provider. Construction of the solar grid is being handled by CS Energy, a solar energy service company based in Edison, New Jersey.

However, planning for the project began in 2019. Cicero says because the land is a former landfill and Superfund site, CEP Renewables had to work with various government agencies, such as the EPA and NJDEP, to receive approval.

“This was a complex undertaking because you need to do testing and geological studies of the landfill to make sure the integrity of the landfill caps isn’t damaged during construction,” Cicero says. “It took about a year and a half to secure all of the permits we needed to begin work on the project.”

To ensure the landfill stays intact, the solar grid will not use posts to secure the panels. Instead, CS Energy plans to install concrete ballasts to secure the panels to.

The farm will take up about 60 acres of the 103-acre property—the entirety of the capped landfill. About 60,000 solar panels will be used for the project, which is expected to be finished by year-end.

Rewards and obstacles

From left: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and CEP Renewables CEO Gary Cicero
Photo courtesy of CEP Renewables

Energy companies have taken an interest in closed landfills for several reasons. According to YSG Solar, a solar system design and installation company based in New York, building solar farms on landfills solves potential problems with finding suitable project sites because landfills offer adequate space and proximity to necessary infrastructure, such as substations and three-phase power.

Solar farms at landfills have the potential to remain hidden from residents but near transmission lines, so there would not be an issue delivering energy. Given its previous use, the land also often is cheaper than land in other areas, allowing for large-scale solar projects.

Cicero echoes these reasons, adding that solar projects provide benefits to the community. For example, the Mount Olive Solar Field includes a new tax base for the surrounding community while reusing the land. The farm also is expected to provide between 50 and 200 direct and indirect jobs.

Despite the benefits, building a solar farm on an existing landfill is not without obstacles. Grants for projects often can be hard to secure because of how competitive they are. Additionally, grants often don’t cover most of the work needed in light of the size of these projects, according to YSG Solar.

Another obstacle is policy surrounding these types of projects, with solar farms requiring extensive review from stakeholders and state and local officials. In some cases, local governments must develop policies for solar farms before construction can be considered, which could take years, according to YSG Solar.

Gouin says because the farm is being built on a landfill cap, there is a risk the landfill could be damaged. If that were to happen, the landfill could begin leaking pollutants again. However, CEP has invested in engineering and studies to avoid such a scenario.

A bright future

The U.S. has more than 10,000 closed landfills. “The Future of Landfills Is Bright,” a study conducted by RMI, a clean energy nonprofit based in Washington, estimates 4,312 of these sites can be converted into solar farms.

In 2019, the EPA’s Re-Powering America’s Land initiative identified more than 352 projects built on renewable energy installations on 327 contaminated land, landfills or mine sites. Of those projects, 91 percent are solar farms and 61 percent were built on former landfills. The EPA has tracked an 80 percent rise in solar projects across the U.S. between 2015 and 2020.

Mount Olive won’t be CEP Renewables’ last solar farm to be built on a landfill. While Cicero doesn’t say where, he says he has several such projects in the works in New Jersey. The site sizes range from 30 acres to 100 acres and are at various early stages of planning.

He continues, “This is made possible with Gov. Murphy’s renewable energy plan.”

The author is the digital editor for Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at akamczyc@gie.net.