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Owners of closed landfills have increasingly found ways to repurpose capped and closed sites, with one new option also tying into America’s quest to decrease its dependency on fossil fuels.

The former Sunnyside landfill site in Houston may soon host a large-scale solar panel array on its property via a redevelopment project that seems to have largely been met with approval from residents and neighboring property owners.

When combined with the capture and conversion of landfill-generated methane gas, solar panels can turn a property once regarded as a source of nuisance complaints into a renewable energy source that fosters community pride.

A positive proposal

This January, the city of Houston approved a lease agreement with Sunnyside Energy LLC to advance the Sunnyside Solar Project. In a January news release announcing the agreement, the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner described Sunnyside Energy as “a public-private partnership to convert the 240-acre closed landfill in Sunnyside into the largest brownfield solar installation in the nation.”

“The Sunnyside landfill has been one of Houston’s biggest community challenges for decades, and I am proud we are one step closer to its transformation,” said Turner in January. “I thank the Sunnyside community because this project would not have come together without its support. This project is an example of how cities can work with the community to address long-standing environmental justice concerns holistically, create green jobs and generate renewable energy in the process.”

According to the Houston-based One Breath Partnership, the Sunnyside location hosted two landfills and an incinerator during its decades as a waste disposal site.

The project as conceived will be anchored by a 50 megawatt ballasted solar array designed to generate enough electricity to power 5,000 homes. The use of solar energy to replace fossil fuels will offset 60,000 tons of CO2 annually, according to the city. The array is expected to be installed and operational by the end of 2022 at no cost to Houston taxpayers, according to the Turner administration.

The landfill redevelopment project fits into Houston’s broader CO2 emissions reduction strategy. In 2017, the city joined the C40 Reinventing Cities Competition, which the Turner administration describes as “a global competition to develop innovative, carbon-free and resilient urban projects.”

Through the competition, Houston and 13 other cities around the world identified what they considered underutilized parcels of land for redevelopment. It was through this competition that the city of Houston selected the Sunnyside solar array project, proposed by Houston-based Wolfe Energy LLC, as the winning proposal.

After receiving the green light to move the proposal forward, Wolfe Energy and its founding engineer Dori Wolfe formed Sunnyside Energy, bringing together what the company calls “a team of engineers, architects, community members and artists” to transform the abandoned landfill site into an urban solar farm.

Under the terms of a lease agreement approved by Houston’s city council, the city will retain ownership of the land while tenant Sunnyside Energy will be responsible for the permitting, construction, operation and maintenance of the project, which will carry an estimated $70 million price tag.

Throughout 2021, Sunnyside Energy has been in the process of securing the necessary state and local permits while also finalizing financing and design plans.

The Turner administration bills the project as an example of how the city of Houston “is working to find innovative public-private solutions to address historic environmental justice concerns, climate change and economic development in underserved communities.”

Gaining support

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the solar project at Sunnyside would be the “largest brownfield solar installation in the nation.”

The Sunnyside landfill was closed in the 1970s and is described in the C40 Reinventing Cities project description as “located between central and suburban areas, and well-connected to the city center by roads and public transport.”

According to a blog post by the Washington-based Population Education non-governmental organization, the solar array project replaces an earlier proposal to build a community center on the closed landfill. That proposal, terminated in 2018, met with objections from Sunnyside area residents who did not want such a center built on a landfill site.

The Sunnyside Energy project, meanwhile, has earned approval from such organizations as Population Education and the Houston branch of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

The NAACP has released a set of Equitable Solar Policy Principles it says are designed to ensure that such projects and polices “are community-driven; address past, present and future effects of climate change; result in measurable increases in the adoption of solar technologies; address issues other than just climate change, including water quality, housing affordability and community development; be integrated with energy efficiency and updates to the electric grid; and ensure solar is accessible across income and racial groups.”

The NAACP has been involved with solar energy since 2018, when it created its Solar Equity Initiative as a method to “increase solar installations in communities of color and to connect people to skills training for solar jobs, all supported by strengthened solar equity policies.”

The NAACP says its goal is for the principles to help guide local and national policymakers as they seek to expand the development of solar projects.

“The new clean energy economy is an opportunity to address past injustices, but only with intentional policy decisions such as those outlined in the Equitable Solar Policy Principles,” says Denise Abdul-Rahman, a national field organizer with the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

A solar energy project, including those atop closed landfills, can lead to investments in under-resourced communities, create local wealth while also building more resilience in terms of the climate and grid stability, says the group.

If the financing and permitting hurdles are cleared and a solar array is installed at the Sunnyside site, it will join numerous such post-closure projects in the United States. Construction is underway this summer atop a closed landfill in Spanish Fork, Utah, where a smaller 4.7 megawatt array is being installed. (See the sidebar “A fork in the landfill” on page 36).

A combination of renewable energy pursuits and community concerns over landfills—two trends unlikely to diminish—is prompting increased attention to solar energy farms as a landfill post-closure option.

More on the way

According to an October 2020 presentation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the EPA has tracked an 80 percent rise in such projects across the U.S. over the previous five years.

The agency’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative includes landfills along with “formerly contaminated lands” (brownfields) and mine sites as parcels of land that can serve as ideal hosts to solar energy or wind farms.

The RE-Powering Initiative includes a map and chart in its presentation that tracks 417 such projects representing more than 1.8 gigawatts of installed capacity. Some 91 percent of those, according to the EPA, are solar projects, and 59 percent of the tracked projects are on closed landfill sites.

Massachusetts has been far and away the leading host of such projects, hosting 125 of the 417 projects (30 percent) known to the RE-Powering Initiative.

However, as the Houston and Spanish Fork projects demonstrate, the deployment of solar panels to landfills is spreading beyond the Northeast (where New York, with 35 projects, serves as the second most active host).

On the RE-Powering Initiative map, only seven states (Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Washington and West Virginia) were not home to any such projects as of October of last year.

“Among the various technologies and available sites, solar photovoltaics on landfills has been a particularly attractive redevelopment option and, over time, has represented an increasing share of all RE-Powering sites,” states the EPA. The trend demonstrates that “communities, developers, and site owners are embracing this sustainable land development strategy,” says the agency.

The author is a senior editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.