Toxic Landfills Across the U.S. Could Get Second Lives as Solar Farms
As pollution, heatwaves, flooding and habitat destruction worsen worldwide, humans are coming up with more creative solutions to battle the climate crisis.
An example of this is the increasing number of landfill sites across the U.S. that are being repurposed as solar farms.
A landfill is a toxic disposal site for solid waste covered in layers of dirt — an example of human excess and the rampant polluting of our planet.
When grass has begun to grow on a landfill, it can look green and lush, but landfills have been categorized as “brownfields” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, contaminated sites that are a danger to the environment, too unhealthy and unstable to be developed.
According to “The Future of Landfills is Bright,” a report from nonprofit clean energy organization RMI, 113 landfill-to-solar projects with a one megawatt or greater capacity have been built in the U.S. Together, these projects are responsible for 428 megawatts of solar capacity.
A megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. household is about 7,200 kilowatt-hours.
A report from RMI and the World Resources Institute said 21 landfill solar projects across the U.S. generated 207 megawatts of energy last year.
The largest landfill-to-solar project in the U.S. is being developed 17 miles south of Houston, Texas, in the predominantly-Black Sunnyside neighborhood, reported Vox.
The finished project will cover 240 acres of former landfill and power about 5,000 homes per year, according to Time.
Historically, landfills in the U.S. have often been placed in mostly-Black areas, another example of the country’s environmental injustice.
“For 40 to 50 years, white Americans came here and dumped on Black Americans,” said president of local community development nonprofit South Union CDC Efrem Jernigan, who is a lifelong resident of Sunnyside, as Vox reported.
Once a landfill like the one in Sunnyside is decommissioned, it becomes a blight to the community, wasted space that could emit toxic pollutants if punctured by building or not properly capped.
According to one of the authors of “The Future of Landfills is Bright,” Matthew Popkin, who is a manager in the urban transformation program at RMI, building solar panels on former landfills is safe because they are able to be built on concrete ballasts that won’t disrupt the dirt cap.
Just in case, the solar farm in Sunnyside will have environmental sensors around its perimeter in case of any leaks.
Local communities are more in charge of how landfills are reused, since they are under the ownership and control of municipalities.
“It was usually people who were disadvantaged who didn’t have a say in what went in their backyard,” said Popkin, as reported by Vox.
“There’s an opportunity here for partially correcting some environmental injustices,” Popkin said. “[I]t can be part of a broader revitalization strategy.”
Over 4,300 landfills in the U.S. were identified by Popkin and co-author Akshay Krishnan as being promising locations for landfill solar projects that could end up generating 63.2 gigawatts of power annually, enough to power 7.8 million homes. (A gigawatt equals 1,000,000 kilowatts.)
About two megawatts of the 50 total the Sunnyside solar project will generate will be put into a community solar project that could help lower the costs of electricity for Sunnyside residents.
There will also be a 150-megawatt storage facility for excess solar power to be used when needed to help prevent blackouts.
Additionally, Sunnyside residents will have the opportunity to enroll in a solar installation training program offered every quarter.
The Inflation Reduction Act includes tax breaks for “energy communities” to be developed through clean energy projects in low-income areas and brownfields, plus millions of dollars in funding.
“Suddenly, you have a national incentive to build these projects,” said Popkin, as Vox reported.
Popkin expressed hope that the solar project’s economic upsides will benefit the community, rather than leading to gentrification.
“I am optimistic about the future of this land and the people who live in the resilient neighborhood that developed around this environmental injustice,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to a press release from the Houston Mayor’s Office. “Most importantly, it will transform the built environment of a historically under-served and under-resourced community by bringing private investment to Sunnyside, a predominantly Black and brown community that struggles daily with historical inequities that have created present-day disparities.”