New York City’s Solar Landfill Plan Finds Eager Energy Developers

Developers say they want in on New York's solar landfill project, but agree that Masschusetts and New Jersey have more enticing policy incentives

Construction on a solar array at a New Jersey landfill/Credit: KSE Partners and groSolar

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New York City’s garbage never looked so good.

Solar firms are already lining up for a piece of the city’s landfills, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week that some 250 acres would be opened for sun-powered installations.

The move gives New York a chance to shine in the emerging solar space, and to compete with neighbor-states Massachusetts and New Jersey, where utility-scale projects on brownfields abandoned industrial sites and landfills are increasingly popping up.

Bloomberg said that the city would partner with private developers to build up to 50 megawatts of solar power atop capped landfills in Staten Island and Brooklyn.

The panels, to be spread across a sliver of the city’s 3,000 acres of landfill property, could generate enough electricity to supply 50,000 homes, particularly during the summer’s peak demand period when backup generators that burn fossil fuels kick in.

Bloomberg announced the project as part of an update to his four-year-old PlaNYC, a suite of more than 100 programs to reduce the city’s carbon dioxide emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“Installing solar power at these sites could significantly improve local air quality by reducing generation at the city’s dirtiest plants during periods of peak summer demand,” the plan states.

The mayor’s office did not return phone calls or emails by deadline.

Paul Curran, chief development officer of Axio Power Inc., said that while 50 megawatts of solar power is a “drop in the bucket” for New York City where maximum power usage reaches nearly 20,000 megawatts on a hot summer day the high-profile project offers the metropolis a rare chance to build out sprawling solar installations.

“It is very difficult to find open spaces in New York City that are not going to be developed for other purposes,” he told SolveClimate News.

“This landfill initiative the mayor announced is a perfect blend of the benefits of solar and the realities of required land usage. You need space for renewable energy to be developed, and the landfills are the best option for various technologies.”

Curran said that the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Axio Power is “absolutely” interested in pursuing Bloomberg’s proposal and is awaiting further details from the mayor’s office to move forward.

The solar and wind developer in recent years has heightened its focus on utility-scale landfill projects because of their economic attractiveness.

Municipalities often lease toxic and hazardous sites for cheap. With power infrastructure and roads already in place, project costs stay low, resulting in relatively inexpensive electricity rates that are easy to sell to towns and utilities.

Landfills a ‘Hot Topic in the Solar Industry’

“The solar markets are growing, so developers are looking for places to put large solar farms. Landfills are at the top of the list because it is cheap land in low demand,” said Joseph Harrison, a Boston-based project developer for Borrego Solar Systems Inc., a San Diego solar firm.

“It is a hot topic in the solar industry right now.”

Harrison said that his firm would also pursue the proposed solar projects at New York City landfills.

In 2008, the U.S. EPA gave the first big push to develop renewable energy on brownfields with its RE-Powering America’s Land initiative to track and evaluate contaminated properties.

So far, the agency has identified more than 490,000 sites on nearly 15 million acres of contaminated land and about 100,000 decommissioned or old landfills.

On its website, Borrego Solar explains that the average landfill has anywhere from 5 to 80 acres of land suitable for solar, or enough for 1 to 16 megawatts of power. The firm says that installing solar power arrays on a quarter of U.S. landfills could produce around 212,000 megawatts of clean energy.

Eleven landfill solar farms totaling 43 megawatts in solar capacity are operating or under construction in Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Texas, though most are pilot projects.

Harrison noted that existing projects deploy a multitude of technologies, so no industry standard on brownfields has been set. He said that Borrego Solar would soon release a list of best practices that it is developing with Tighe & Bond, a civil engineering company.

The white paper could help guide a new wave of brownfield solar development already in the works this year, particularly in Massachusetts.

Mass. Sees Solar Landfill Surge

That state has seen the biggest surge in landfill solar projects largely because of the solar carve-out program in its renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

Under the RPS, renewable energy must account for 15 percent of electricity generation by 2020 and 25 percent by 2030. Two percent or 400 megawatts of the earlier target will be from solar power.

To achieve its solar goals, the state allows residential, commercial and utility-scale solar farms with fewer than 6 megawatts in capacity to trade Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) in local and regional markets. Solar farms in 19 states (not New York) and D.C. can trade SRECs.

One SREC represents 1,000 kilowatt-hours of solar energy generation. Operators can sell their SRECs for as high as $600 a piece to retail electricity suppliers who need the credits to meet regulatory compliance requirements.

Solar installations can also deposit SRECs into a state auction account as a last resort. Credits there sell for a fixed floor priced of $285 each after a small auction fee is applied.

At last count in 2010, nearly 840 SRECs had been minted for 171 solar projects in Massachusetts, though about 60 projects have since been added to the production tracking system.

Curran said that the solar carve-out is a “good goal that everybody knows is there, and the framework is stable so developers can come in with confidence.”

He added: “New York doesn’t have that.”

NY Should Take Cue from Front-Runners

Massachusetts also offers net metering to solar developers, allowing installations to feed up to 2 megawatts of power back onto the grid and earn the retail price for solar electricity. For municipal operators, a credit is applied to the monthly electric bill.

New Jersey has similar SREC and net metering programs in place, plus a goal to install between 1,500 and 2,300 megawatts of solar capacity by 2021, depending on the level of retail sales that year.

The two states’ solar plans are made increasingly attractive by the 1603 Treasury Program policy, a temporary federal incentive that allows solar farms to receive a grant for 30 percent of project costs in lieu of taking a solar investment tax credit.

Axio Power says it has signed four power purchase and lease agreements with towns in Massachusetts and has ten other projects under development in the state.

The firm has also proposed a 20-megawatt landfill solar project in Victorville, Calif., which is near a 2-megawatt project planned by another developer in Big Bear Valley.

Borrego Solar has a 2.2-megawatt project under contract in Massachusetts and another 440-kilowatt farm in negotiations, and the firm has been shortlisted for half a dozen solar installations in that state.

Five other developers in the Bay State are planning to install nearly 15 megawatts in total capacity

In New Jersey, at least 6.5 megawatts from two landfill projects are planned.

Harrison said that New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation should take a cue from the brownfield front-runners and streamline its permitting processes and safety requirements for landfill development.

He noted that despite the relatively small size of Bloomberg’s landfill solar proposal, the projects could have a resounding impact within the industry.

“It’s going to get a lot of press. That is only going to be a net positive for the entire solar industry,” he said.