THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Canton dump may soon be a solar powerhouse

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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A Canton landfill closed for more than two decades will soon be transformed into New England’s largest solar electric development, officials are expected to announce today.

Approximately 24,000 solar panels installed across 15 acres — think 11 football fields — would be able to power more than 750 homes, its developers said.

The project, which is expected to open in the fall pending one last regulatory hurdle, would be three times larger than any other solar facility up and running in New England, according to state energy officials.

“It’s a significant development and, we hope, a harbinger of things to come,’’ said Robert Keough, spokesman for the state’s Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Hundreds of closed landfills across the state sit idle as communities debate what to do with them. The materials used to cap and enclose the pollution within landfills do not allow for any development that would bore deep into the ground.

State energy officials have been trying to encourage communities to consider solar projects for these sites because the installations basically sit on top of the land.

Until now, most solar installations in Massachusetts and across New England have been designed for rooftops, which limits their size and potential to generate power. But the one in Canton, a 5.6 megawatt array, will not have such constraints.

“This landfill is one of the few in the Commonwealth that has the size and topography to be able to site a facility as large as 5.6 megawatts,’’ said Frank McMahon, a principal at Southern Sky Renewable Energy, the new Boston-based company that is developing the installation.

McMahon said the company formed last year and this is its first renewable energy project.

Southern Sky approached the Town of Canton last spring about the idea, which sounded to town leaders like manna from mountains of trash. Or, as Selectman John J. Connolly puts it, “a grand slam for us.’’

The town had previously rejected several other ideas for the landfill, which has been closed since 1989, including baseball fields and a new public works facility.

“The land was just going to sit there forever,’’ Connolly said. “This is a no-brainer.’’

Over the past nine months, various town boards reviewed and signed off on the $25 million project, and no residents have raised objections, Connolly said.

The project has also received the green light from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, Keough said.

The final deal between the company and the town means that Canton could net about $16.3 million from Southern Sky over the course of the 25-year contract, which includes the land lease, rebates for power generated from the site, and savings on the town’s electric bills.

“We have to pinch ourselves to make sure it’s real,’’ Connolly said.

The money, which is expected to start coming in later this year, would probably mean the town can avoid laying off teachers, firefighters, and police, Connolly said, a prospect now facing many other communities.

The solar project must clear one last checkpoint: NStar must approve Southern Sky’s application to connect its solar-powered installation to the region’s electric grid. Engineers must assess whether NStar’s equipment in that area can handle the power generated at the facility.

If upgrades are needed to make the connections compatible, the developer must foot that bill, said NStar spokesman Mike Durand.

The review can take several months.

“We turn it around as quickly as possible, but with all the interest in renewable energy lately, we have gotten many more projects than we used to,’’ Durand said. “We like that, but it tends to create a pipeline backlog in some cases.’’

McMahon said the company expects to start construction before the months-long utility approval process is completed and aims to have power flowing by October or November.

McMahon said Southern Sky is now eyeing another large swath of land in Southeastern Massachusetts that would allow the company to build a solar installation more than twice the size of the one in Canton, capable of generating approximately 12 megawatts.

He declined to identify the community but said the site is on an “environmentally challenged piece of land, not a landfill.’’

The company expects to announce details in about three weeks.

Beth Daley of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com