BOSTON – State environmental officials, hoping to produce clean power from idle and unwanted land, are urging towns and cities to turn some of nearly 500 former landfills into solar or wind energy farms.
The Department of Environmental Protection has issued permits for 12 such projects since last year, including a solar array in Canton and a wind turbine in Kingston.
Hoping that is only the first wave of proposals, the DEP is working on a guidebook on redeveloping former dumps and touting incentives and smooth permitting.
“My sense is that as these catch on and we create economic models and permitting models to do it, more communities will get involved,” DEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell said recently.
State officials acknowledge not every former landfill is suitable. Towns and cities have to make sure a renewable energy project will not disrupt buried waste or jeopardize soil and synthetic caps that control the spread of waste at many closed landfills. Other sites slope too much or are too far from electrical transmission lines.
However, in the projects the DEP has permitted, officials said they are confident the job can be done safely.
“It’s environmentally friendly,” said Sarah Weinstein, deputy assistant commissioner for the DEP’s Bureau of Waste Protection. “We know all these projects have been properly capped and closed and we know the project is going to work with the cap.”
Solar panels seem to be generating the most interest among city and town leaders, said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Mass. Municipal Association..
“It’s actually very cost-effective to turn over (landfills) to the production of solar energy and make use of the land that otherwise would lay fallow or be very expensive to redevelop,” Beckwith said.
Massachusetts leaders hope not only to redevelop these sites, but help the state reach its goal of generating 15 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.
The DEP lists a total of about 860 inactive landfills or dumps in the state, but for renewable energy projects, the agency wants to look at the potential of 496 sites that were mostly closed in the last 40 years.
Municipalities own 348 of the closed landfills the DEP lists as having some potential for renewable energy projects.
Another 132 are in private hands, while the state and federal governments own fewer than 20.
Twenty-five landfills on the list are still active, but are scheduled to close within the next two decades.
“They’re typically cleared, so they don’t have trees blocking the sun, and they’re usually in locations that putting up big arrays of solar panels isn’t going to offend anybody,” Kimmell said. “It’s not a beautiful forest.”
Before installing solar panels or windmills on a closed landfill, towns and cities must conduct engineering studies on everything from whether the project could be done without compromising pollution controls on the sites to preventing additional runoff from the sites.
Developers often finance and build the project themselves and operate it under a lease, cashing in on tax and renewable energy credits and selling energy into the grid.
The municipalities generally buy power from the projects at rates projected to yield savings and ultimately control the facilities when the leases expire.