By Patrick Metzger
Last Thursday, the city of Beacon, NY got a big boost to their renewable energy generation. That’s because a local landfill has been converted from a stagnant stretch of grass into a 2 megawatt solar farm—one of the largest in its territory. Residents and visitors who frequent the Dennings Point Trail along the Hudson River will notice the new solar panels stretching across the nearby field.
Converting a landfill into a solar farm would have sounded like science fiction 20 years ago, but it’s becoming an ever more common practice in the age of renewables that we’re living in today.
Solar Farms and Landfills: A Match Made in Heaven
Once a landfill is capped, there’s not a lot you can do with the land. With all the material underneath, it makes for a shaky foundation, so large buildings can’t be built on it. There’s often a lingering smell and the possibility of hazards, so converting a landfill into a public space (as in the case of Freshkills Park on Staten Island) takes a long time and is the exception rather than the rule. Solar farms, on the other hand, can put these large tracts of land to good use and save municipalities money on their electric bills to boot.
It turns out, building a solar farm or other renewable energy source on a landfill is not a new idea at all. Solar farms have been built on landfills all over the country in places like Fort Carson, CO (2008), Atlanta, GA (2011), Cape Cod, MA (2014), and Brooklyn, OH (2018). The EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative specifically encourages the reuse of formerly contaminated properties for renewable energy projects. As of October 2017, they’ve tracked 253 renewable energy installations on 238 contaminated lands. The cumulative capacity of all these installations is a whopping 1,398 megawatts.
How Did Beacon Do It?
It took a concerted effort over many years by Beacon’s government and its citizens to make this solar landfill into a reality.
The Dennings Point landfill opened in the late 1960’s on municipal land and was officially closed in 1977. In the decades that followed, the EPA conducted an assessment and determined that the landfill was a good candidate for the construction of solar panels. Seeing an opportunity, Solarcity made a bid to build panels there—though, in the end, they weren’t selected as the vendor. It was a local citizen and environmental advisor, Jeff Domanski, who suggested that the city go through a formal request for proposal (RFP) process with two additional businesses that might build the panels. This ensured that all factors would be taken into consideration so that the city would get the most out of working with a solar company.
Jeff Domanski is a lifelong citizen of the Hudson Valley and his background made him the perfect partner to consult with the City of Beacon’s leadership throughout the process. His career has seen him collaborate in the founding of Princeton University’s sustainability department, then go on to work as a sustainability expert for Cushman & Wakefield, Hospitality Green, and now the Institute for Building Technology and Safety.
It was with this experience that Domanski collaborated with Beacon’s Conservation Advisory Committee (CAC), Mayor Randy Casale, and the city council to draft and send out an RFP to solar companies in the summer of 2015. By winter, after reviewing all options, it was clear they had a winner—BQ Energy was selected to build the solar panels.
BQ Energy is a local business in nearby Wappingers Falls that has been building renewable installations on brownfields and landfills since 2002 (including a recent project that was completed in Patterson, NY). “We get calls every day from people who own landfill properties and are thinking about it,” says Paul Curran, founder of BQ Energy. Paul has been working in brownfield development since the 1980’s when he realized that he could give closed oil refineries a second life. He’s completed several dozen solar installations on landfills, mostly in the Northeast.
“My car—I drive a Chevy Volt—is more experimental than a solar panel these days,” says Curran. “The fact that it’s certain to work is a new thing, and a really good thing for political leaders to realize.”
It was Paul’s team at BQ Energy that shepherded the Beacon solar project through to construction. This included:
- Applying for interconnection with the grid through the local utility company, Central Hudson
- Submitting a work plan to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
- Financing the project with a loan from the New York Green Bank
- Constructing the solar panels, starting in November of 2017
Saving Taxpayer Dollars, One Ray of Sunshine at a Time
The panels, built on 11 acres, will generate 2 megawatts of electricity—about 60% of the city’s public power usage. That’s the energy equivalent of approximately 1,600 homes. BQ Energy will own the panels and the city of Beacon will buy the energy they produce at a reduced cost through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). The costs for the electricity are locked in at a low rate with slow increases over time. The savings in energy cost are passed directly to the taxpayer by reducing the fiscal burden to the city.
“It’s looking to be a $2 million dollar savings or more for the city over the life of the project,” says Jeff Domanski.
This influx of low-cost electricity comes at a crucial moment, when the local utility company (Central Hudson) is increasing electricity rates by $9.81/month over the next 3 years—rates that are already 17-37% higher than all other New York utilities. Local groups such as Citizens for Local Power and Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson worked diligently to keep these rates from increasing even higher.
Moving to lower-cost renewable energy sources is a smart financial decision for local governments, especially in the Hudson Valley.
“It’s a good use of an old landfill,” says Beacon’s mayor Randy Casale. “It’s good green energy going back into the grid that is sustainable.” Casale highlighted that this is one of many steps that Beacon is taking to move toward a more sustainable way of living. The city switched to LED bulbs in streetlights and many municipal buildings, installed electric car charging stations in parking lots, and is in the process of joining a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) system to provide renewable electricity to even more homes in Beacon—thanks in large part to the efforts of volunteers at the Green Beacon Coalition.
Let’s Spread This Idea All Over the Country
In the end, it was elbow grease, paperwork, and tireless persistence that got the panels built. Paul Curran, Jeff Domanski, the CAC, the city council, and Mayor Casale all saw the project through three years of hurdles.
At one point, due to complex legal language, Central Hudson wasn’t going to allow the solar energy to be used to power Beacon’s street lights, which technically aren’t metered although they use 40% of the city’s electricity. The City of Beacon team pushed back and petitioned the New York State Public Service Commission for a year before that commission finally approved a revision to the legal jargon. It was hurdles like this that the Beacon cohort navigated gracefully thanks to the support of all the experts who got involved.
“You need a point person,” Domanski says. “I call it a sustainability navigator. They’re not building you a ship. They’re not inventing anything new. They’re not creating the seas that you sail through. They’re just helping you get to where you need to go—including understanding solar development and PPAs and different aspects. A city needs that resource.”
Cities like Beacon are helping to fight climate change by switching to renewables. We need more innovative solutions like this. Together, we can adapt to a new, more sustainable way of living.
Want to replicate this idea near you? Here are some ideas:
- Check out the EPA’s site on RE-Powering America’s Land: https://www.epa.gov/re-powering
- Find a viable landfill near you
- Talk to your city council members about building on the land
- Ally with a local expert who can act as a sustainability navigator
- Suggest an RFP process to find the right company to build a renewable energy source on the land