Blog   |   Jun 8th, 2017 Guest Post: Top Tips for Turning a Landfill into a Solar Brownfield

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By: Paul Curran, Managing Director at BQ Energy and Jack Honor, Project Development Manager of Solar at Ameresco

As our overall demand for energy keeps rising, we are seeing more and more landfills and other brownfields being used as solar-photovoltaic power generating installations. Many landfill owners are public entities paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a year to maintain and insure these sites–so solar power can generate positive cash flow from an otherwise useless site.

What should landfill owners know about developing solar?

  1. Start with a records search. Most landfills were closed in the 1990s, before Internet information sharing. Often you’ll have to do an in-depth search of paper files for the closure record. You’ll need those records before performing even preliminary geotechnical evaluations of the site.
  2. Do your due diligence on bidders. After municipalities or private landfill companies have put a project out to bid, do extensive research on the technical capabilities and financial strength of bidders. Developers sometimes may not be able to fulfill a contract, for a variety of reasons. Due diligence up front can help you avoid potentially problematic bidders, and for projects that run into challenges, help document what went wrong and why, improving your odds of having a construction bond (or in the worst case, litigation) pay for getting the project completed.
  3. Understand the financial limitations of solar on brownfields. Cleaning up landfills to regulatory compliance is challenging and expensive. The value of the solar energy you can produce may defray that cost, but is unlikely to pay for all or even most of the cost of the cleanup. Think of solar as a dividend from the cost of an environmental remediation, not its funding source.
  4. Be ready for regulators’ questions. Just a few of the kinds of queries you’re likely to be asked about a solar-on-landfill project are: Could landfill pollution leach into drinking water? Will there be erosion? Could there be an increase in landfill methane seepage or odors? Most of the time these are non-issues, and we have more than 6 years of operating data in Massachusetts, for example, allaying these concerns. But be prepared to educate regulators, community leaders, and the general public.

Many landowners have expressed surprise with how long it takes to transform a brownfield into a brightfield–but how quickly the actual physical transformation takes place. That is, it may take years to move from concept through regulatory reviews to the beginning of construction, and then just weeks or months from there to completion. The transformation from blight to benefit, not just financially but also environmentally, can be quick once all the reviews and plans are complete.

Across our country, some states are more “solar friendly” than others. But even if your state falls in the less friendly category, solar-on-landfill projects are worth pursuing. We’ve found the most persuasive argument from an environmental and community standpoint is the potential for positive reuse of a site, turning a community liability into an asset. 

One question to consider is, “How can the residents of my community benefit from such a project?” When the answer is eliminating blight, securing an environmental liability, creating jobs and environmental education opportunities, and producing clean, green energy, converting brownfields to brightfields for most people is a very logical decision.

Paul Curran, Managing Director at BQ Energy and Jack Honor, Project Development Manager of Solar at Ameresco will be presenting at TRC’s Developing Solar on Brownfields & Landfills Conference on June 12-13, 2017 in Chicago, IL.

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