Turning Trash into Treasure – CleanTechnica

Courtesy of RMI.
By Laurie Stone and Matthew Popkin

In 1937, a landfill was built in the predominantly black Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston. Since then the residents of this community have been paying the price. From “flies, cockroaches, rats, and smells” to the death of an 11-year-old boy, the Sunnyside landfill has negatively impacted the quality of life of the community for more than 80 years. The landfill was closed in 1974 because lethal levels of lead were revealed, but the health and environmental impacts remain. Or they have not yet.

The 240-acre landfill will soon become a 52-megawatt solar farm, the largest landfill solar facility and the second largest in the country. There are already more than 10,000 closed and inactive landfills around the United States that provide similar opportunities. These landfills have limited reuse potential because they contain years and years of waste. Therefore, installing solar energy on them allows states and municipalities to develop local solar energy while repurposing these large, vacant rooftop sites that detract from the local community.

New RMI report, The future of landfills is bright, found that closed landfills across the United States could hold an estimated 63 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy, enough to power 7.8 million American homes or the entire state of South Carolina.

From Brownfields to Brightfields

Among brownfield sites, closed landfills are often ideal sites for solar energy. For one thing, although some closed landfills have been redirected to open spaces or golf courses, most lack any planned future use once closed. This is due in part to the potentially hazardous materials present at these sites and the presence of gas wells in landfills, both of which limit land penetration – and thus the development of – schools, shopping and housing. Thus, installing solar energy in landfills avoids conflict of land use with other economic, agricultural, residential or recreational activities. In fact, Texas alone has more than 94,000 acres of closed landfills that can generate an estimated 27 gigawatts of electricity.

According to Paul Curran, managing director of BQ Energy Development and co-developer of the Sunnyside project, “Electricity is generated more efficiently near where it is to be used… This land cannot and should not be used for other public purposes, but it often represents a notable resource for generating clean energy “.

Landfills often have little shading and already have connections to electrical infrastructure and roads due to their prior use. In addition, federal and state programs offer grants and other incentives for site assessment, cleanup, and landfill reuse, which helps reduce additional upfront costs that may accompany less virgin land. But perhaps most importantly, putting solar energy in landfills helps advance environmental justice, especially in communities where local leaders have deliberately placed landfills near non-white communities or pushed low-income neighborhoods toward waste collection sites.

A bright spot to revitalize communities

Across the United States, landfills are often located in communities of color. After protests erupted in 1982 in a predominantly black community in Warren County, North Carolina, over a proposed hazardous waste landfill, the U.S. Department of Energy found links between race, poverty, and waste-location decisions. One study found that “three out of five African Americans and Hispanics live in a community with toxic waste sites.”

The Sunnyside landfill is located in an area with a much smaller white population and much less affluence than the city and state on average (the non-white population is roughly 98 percent compared to more than 75 percent in the city). The median household income in the neighborhood is only 59 percent of the city average and 51 percent of the Texas average.

“The Sunnyside landfill has affected the neighborhood, preventing the community from growing and opportunity,” Mayor Sylvester Turner stated. “It is our duty and responsibility to look at neighborhoods that have historically been underserved and find ways to uplift these communities. In Sunnyside, this means turning a former landfill into a facility that generates clean, renewable electricity to power homes, reduce emissions and create green jobs.”

This is why the proposal to convert it into a solar farm with other community facilities could be a game changer. Dory Wolfe, founder and owner of Wolfe Energy, said one of the other companies – the developer of the project. “The Sunnyside Solar Farm will be a good neighbor for the community.”

The proposal now includes up to 50 MW of utility-scale solar, 2 MW of community solar, battery storage, an agricultural hub and training center, all paired with plans to hire locally and create partnerships with the community. The Houston project continues to progress, and the city has since agreed to a lease on the site and selected a development team to design and build the project.

This will greatly energize the community. Landfill site reuse brings temporary construction jobs, permanent operations and maintenance jobs to underutilized sites. This not only boosts the local economy, but also provides a benefit to the local businesses that support these employees. The Sunnyside project is expected to create 600 jobs. Our research shows that installing solar power in all 2,134 closed landfills in Texas would generate more than 300,000 jobs.

Community members at Sunnyside are excited about the project. “My family has called Sunnyside Home several generations ago, and I am glad I will continue the work my father started in building this community,” said Rodney Jones, Sunnyside TIRZ (Tax Reinvestment District) 26 Chair. “The fact that the largest urban solar farm in the country is located in Sunnyside speaks to the way our assets are now being understood by foundations and investors across the board. We hope this becomes an example of historically disadvantaged communities becoming sustainable solutions.”

How to ensure a bright future for landfills

in a The future of landfills is bright, describe how states and local governments can encourage solar energy for landfills through policies and incentives. We include lessons learned from governments that have experimented and refined their policies, incentive structures, and best practices over the past decade. Our findings, analyzes, and research should provide clarity and guidance to elected officials, policy makers, planners, developers and communities about how solar power for landfills can be part of a broader clean energy and land use strategy for ambitious community-wide environmental sustainability. justice goals.

As with the Sunnyside project in Houston, installing solar energy in landfills can stimulate local renewable energy generation, job growth, and revitalize the community without sacrificing existing green spaces or parks. Scaling this to more than 10,000 closed and inactive landfills across the country is beneficial to both communities and the climate. According to Curran, “The potential for safe replication of this concept is enormous.”

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