Solar Energy at the RTS

Solar Energy at the RTS: Producing Clean Energy and Saving Money

Needham's capped landfill isn't trash -- it's treasure!

Three years ago, in 2009, Green Needham first raised the possibility of installing solar PV on top of the capped landfill at the Recycling and Transfer Station (RTS). A large flat area well above grade with virtually no shading, the site appeared ideal for generation of renewable energy. A local firm provided an initial assessment that confirmed the potential opportunity. At the time, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was beginning to roll out a comprehensive strategy for developing renewable energy to reduce costs for Massachusetts residents, create jobs, promote energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Since that time, the cost of installing solar PV has declined, Massachusetts has implemented policies that make it one of the leading solar PV markets in the United States and several communities have taken the lead in demonstrating the feasibility of solar at closed landfills. The Commonwealth's Department of Energy Resources (DoER) and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have teamed up to help communities who want to take advantage of the opportunity to generate renewable energy at their closed landfills.

Green Needham has followed these efforts closely, working with and learning from the many organizations involved.

The time is now for Needham to take advantage of this opportunity to save money by installing a solar PV system on top of the closed landfill at the RTS. Sufficient experience has been gained to ensure that we are not on the leading edge of a risky experiment. Communities that act now will take advantage of the combination of low costs, low financing rates, incentives and the interest of a growing market to secure favorable arrangements. As the market matures, those advantages will erode.

Easthampton Solar PV Array

The benefits to communities of developing renewable energy on closed landfills have been summarized very effectively in a guide prepared for the Massachusetts DoER:

  • "There has never been a more opportune time for municipalities to develop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on landfill sites.
  • Municipalities are seeking additional, creative ways to leverage underperforming assets to save money or generate new revenues.
  • Massachusetts has a robust market for Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) generated by solar PV production.
  • Investor-owned utilities in Massachusetts allow net metering, which allows projects to capture retail rates for electricity produced by qualifying renewable energy projects.
  • Electricity produced by an onsite solar PV system can provide a hedge against volatile energy prices."

The Guide to Developing Solar Photovoltaics at Massachusetts Landfills is a forty-page document prepared for municipalities, covering solar PV technology, landfill considerations, PV system development, design & installation, economics, financing & ownership scenarios and options for public procurement.

What about Needham?

Based on preliminary assessments, Green Needham believes that the area top of the capped landfill could support a 2-3 Megawatt (MW) Solar PV system. A 2 MW system would generate about 2.3 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year, or about 28% of the total electricity used by the Town's Municipal and School buildings in FY 2011.

Who would pay for it?

There are multiple options for developing a PV array, but they break out into two general categories:

  • land lease, where the municipality leases land to a private solar developer who builds, owns and operates the facility. The municipality incurs little or no financial cost in this arrangement. It benefits financially by entering into a long-term power purchase agreement guaranteeing a long-term supply of electricity at advantageous rates.
  • municipal ownership, where the municipality takes on the responsibility for the development and ownership of the facility. Contractors may build and operate the facility, but by assuming the financial responsibility and project risk directly, the community captures all of the financial benefit of the project - lower-cost financing, no-cost electricity, Solar Renewable Energy Credits.
Options include various combinations of these two general scenarios. An important next step for Needham would be to evaluate the feasibility and benefit of the project to Needham based on these options for implementation.

How long would the project take?

The DOER estimates that today "an average MW-scale solar project may take between twelve and twenty-four months to develop and build."

Have other communities done this?

The Commonwealth has more than 490 landfills, 466 of which are now inactive or closed. More than 40 have received post-closure use permit approvals from MassDEP, including 20 projects with solar PV specific uses totaling more than 42.8 MW.

The guide highlights two early projects - the Brockton Brightfields and the Easthampton Solar Array. A recent joint DoER/DEP workshop featured municipal representatives from several communities with projects underway or nearly completed, including Greenfield, Lancaster, Canton and Scituate.

Although not every landfill is suitable to host a solar PV system, municipal landfills with advantageous site characteristics may provide an opportunity for cities and towns to generate revenue from otherwise undevelopable land.

What's next? What can I do?

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  • What else can I do?
    • Promoting this exciting, high impact project will take some effort. The RTS solar team welcomes your help, whether you are interested in organizing and planning events, working on publicity, gathering information, writing and editing, or have other skills. If you would like to get involved or want more information, contact Michael Greis or Eleanor Rosellini.