Area landfills could be turned from idle, unwanted land into spaces for clean energy projects if a set of proposals becomes reality.
In Westport, the old landfill off Hixbridge Road, which was capped in 1998, provides 13 acres and what the town calls “excellent southern exposure” for a solar panel project.
The town released a request for proposals in mid-December and plans to award a 20-year contract by the end of February.
The town would simply lease the land to a contractor that would provide its own equipment. “It would cost the town nothing,” Interim Town Administrator Jack Healey said.
“The town would have no liability.”
Healey estimated the contract could provide the town with a quarter-million dollars annually.
“Towns are not going to survive in this economic climate unless they find alternative revenue sources,” Healey said.
In June, Dartmouth signed a contract with a solar company to lease about 10 acres of an old landfill off Russells Mills Road, then buy the electricity from the company and sell it to NSTAR at a higher rate. The profit for the town from the 1.4 megawatts of electricity is estimated to be $130,000 or more annually, executive administrator David Cressman said.
Over the 20-year span of the deal, the town should bring in roughly $3 million in revenue. Environmental permits are still needed, but construction should start in the spring, Cressman said.
Fall River also recently reached an agreement for a massive clean-energy system consisting of 38,000 solar panels. While the panels won’t be on the landfill, they will be built on land abutting it – land that is tough to market to businesses but perfectly OK for solar energy.
The Department of Environmental Protection has issued permits for at least a dozen similar projects since last year, including solar arrays in Scituate, Lancaster and Canton, and wind turbines in Scituate and Kingston. Hoping that is only the first wave of proposals, the DEP is working on a guidebook about 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.
Somerset and Freetown have also started the process of solar projects. But both have hit stumbling blocks.
Somerset sought bids this fall to add solar or wind energy to the old landfill off Brayton Point Road. But the likelihood of a clean-energy system there is uncertain after residents at a special Town Meeting earlier this month elected to indefinitely postpone a vote to approve leasing the land. Residents said they were concerned about the visual impact of potential wind turbines at the landfill and another site also being considered, town-owned farmland off nearby Wilbur Avenue.
Town Administrator Dennis Luttrell is looking into hiring a consultant for the town to study the potential for clean energy at the landfill.
Freetown negotiated during the summer with a Rhode Island company to add solar panels to a capped landfill off Howland Road but could not come to terms. The deal would have brought the town an estimated $12 million over a 20-year span.
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.
But 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.”
Town and city leaders have questions about such projects, but there are good reasons to consider them, said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Solar panels seem to be generating the most interest, he said.
“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,” he said.
Massachusetts leaders hope to not only redevelop these sites, but help the state reach its goal of generating 15 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.
“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.”
The properties range in size from less than an acre to more than 180 acres.
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.
“We make sure whatever’s put on top will be able to handle it,” Kimmell said.
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.
But arrangements vary. In Lancaster, Town Administrator Orlando Pacheco said the town will finance a 2.8-acre solar project on a former landfill and run the project itself, hoping for greater savings than possible if a developer operates the system.
The town will tap a $500,000 congressional earmark for the project and bond the remaining cost, selling renewable energy credits to pay off the debt and using the power to offset the town’s electric bills, Pacheco said.
“The way we’ve structured this project is there’s actually no net cost to the taxpayer.”
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