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Capped landfills add new shine

By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / June 14, 2012
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If you call your local landfill “Mount Trashmore,” as they do in some Massachusetts communities, that place everyone loves to hate may soon need a kinder nickname.

Several communities south of Boston have joined a growing trend to turn capped landfills from generators of environmental guilt to generators of green power by installing solar panels. A single landfill can generate millions of watts of power each year and save cities and towns hundreds of thousands on their power bills.

In addition to a project underway in Canton slated to be the largest solar-electric development in New England, Scituate plans to break ground soon on its own solar landfill project, according to Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi. Easton Town Meeting recently authorized the town to enter a lease agreement with a solar developer, and, in Holbrook, Town Administrator William Phelan said the town hopes to issue a request for proposals for a project shortly. Duxbury is also working on a solar project for its landfill.

Scituate leased its land to a solar developer, Brightfields Development LLC, in an arrangement Vinchesi said is similar to what the town put together for the wind turbine at the waste-water treatment plant. The turbine began operating March 29, and she expects each of the two projects to generate about $300,000 a year for the town.

“We have a goal to be the leading green community in the state,” she said.

Holbrook has been talking about a solar project for years, Selectman Timothy Gordon said, and he is glad the forthcoming request for proposals will clarify how such a project would affect the town financially.

“I just think it’s important to explore any potential source of revenue,” he said. “If it’s innovative, it’s even better.” He also appreciates the environmental benefits, he said. “There’s really no downside to looking into it.”

Phelan is working on the request for proposals with the town’s attorney. He said the land in question slopes at a “rather dramatic” angle, but a solar company has walked the property and told him construction is still feasible.

Money the town saves on energy or earns from a lease could be directed to a particular use residents consider important, such as a new school or athletic facility, Phelan said. Holbrook has applied for state funding for a new junior-senior high school.

Building solar arrays at a capped landfill also puts the land to good use, which might not happen otherwise, Phelan said. “You’re certainly not going to put a track or a playing field on it,” he said.

Easton anticipates generating about 1.6 megawatts of electricity and $250,000 a year, according to Town Administrator David Colton. He said the Board of Selectmen is scheduled to get the lease documents, and on June 18 they will hear presentations from the town’s attorney and from the developer, Borrego Solar.

Colton said he expects the board will vote that night, and within a year the facility should be up and running, he said. The $250,000 in estimated earnings includes a $30,000 annual lease payment, property taxes, and energy savings.

Between the revenue, land reuse, and green energy, Colton said, “What’s not to like?”

As with many solar installations, Easton will use a net metering agreement with its power company, National Grid, to receive credit for the electricity.

Building renewable energy infrastructure over a capped landfill requires a permit, called a post-closure use permit, from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. To date, projects in 23 communities have received permits, including Canton, Hull, Kingston, Marshfield, and Scituate. The permits in Hull and Kingston pertain to wind turbines, while the Marshfield permit pertains to a solar installation at a private landfill.

Interest in clean-energy development at landfills is strong, according to Sarah Weinstein, deputy assistant commissioner in the Bureau of Waste Prevention at the state environmental agency. The department received numerous applications toward the end of last year and issued several permits in December, she said.

But the process to build a solar array takes time, she said, because towns must follow public procurement requirements, and they often sign a lease with a developer and an agreement with a power company.

In April, the Department of Energy Resources published a new guide to building solar arrays at landfills, which includes information on financial incentives, engineering and design, ownership arrangements, costs, and more. It is available online at www.mass.gov under “Energy and Environment.’’

Dwayne Breger, director of renewable energy at the Department of Energy Resources, said projects at capped landfills require special engineering to protect the integrity of the caps. Despite the logistics, many landfills work well for solar energy, he said, because they tend to be large, unshaded areas with few alternative uses.

Solar electricity generation has grown exponentially in Massachusetts, jumping from about 3 megawatts in 2008 to more than 100 today, according to Catherine Williams, press secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Many solar developments have enjoyed financial support from the state. Fewer than 20 communities do not have a state-supported solar project.

“It’s just been explosive,” she said.

Most of the communities without state-supported solar have municipal power plants, which make the permitting and financial picture somewhat different, she said.

Governor Deval Patrick has set a goal to see Massachusetts install 250 megawatts of solar generation capacity by 2017.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.

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