Part of back to the future, from highlightVox’s home for ambitious stories that illustrate our world.
About 17 miles south of downtown Houston, Texas, on the western edge of a predominantly black neighborhood called Sunnyside, lies a cluttered patch of trees. To visitors driving along Belfort Avenue and Reed Road, which border the trees to the north and south, it may appear like the city’s unusual urban forest, or an extension of nearby Sunnyside Park. .
But the trees aren’t the remnants of an old forest that survived Houston’s starving sprawl, nor are they the green spaces that result from careful public planning.
“These are garbage trees. Jernigan literally means growing on 240 acres of land that used to be a landfill.
“For 40 to 50 years, white Americans came here and were dumped by black Americans,” Jernigan said. , closed in the 1970s after residents protested the death of an 11-year-old boy there in 1967. for the site.
That is about to change. This year, we will begin cutting down these trees and replacing them with solar panels, creating a 52-megawatt solar farm and reclaiming a place that served only as a reminder of past injustices. When completed, it will join a growing list of landfill-to-solar projects across the United States that have the potential to help bring underserved communities to the forefront of a clean energy future. increase.
This is a creative solution that will be needed more in the future. The climate crisis will require us to harness every clean energy source we can find, and a 2021 report from clean energy think tank RMI says that landfill solar projects like Sunnyside will be at least We estimate that it could generate 63.2 gigawatts of power. This will power enough for her 7.8 million homes in the US, or the entire state of South Carolina. If this idea is scaled up nationwide, we can undo two kinds of harm at the same time.
of many injustices Landfills brought to communities of color by those in power are literally textbook examples. In the 1990 book Dumping with DixieIt was one of the first works to outline the concept of environmental justice.
Little has changed since the book was published. Race is he one of the biggest factors in determining whether a person lives near a source of pollution in the United States. Residents of landfill areas are annoyed by the sights, sounds and smells of landfills during their activities. After they are decommissioned, they become dead space, an eyesore at best, and a long-term source of toxic pollution at worst.
Matthew Popkin, manager of RMI’s urban transformation program and co-author of the paper on landfill solar, said: Inactive landfills are supposed to be capped or covered with soil to keep contaminants from escaping, but regulations for capping landfills vary by municipality and state. Also, closed landfills can be unstable porosity, especially as they settle over time. Most types of building activity at these sites risk puncturing the cap through which gases and other contaminants can escape.
There are many industrial sites polluted like this all over the country. Together, inactive landfills, mines, and industrial sites make up a category of land that the EPA calls “brownfields.” By cleaning up those sites and reusing them for clean energy, they turn into ‘brightfields’.
Popkin finds landfill solar power particularly attractive. One reason is that landfill recycling is one of the rare forms that is actually very safe. Solar panels can be built on concrete stands called ballasts. Leave the cap as is. Also, landfills are often managed and owned by local governments, giving local communities a greater say in how they are reused. It stands in stark contrast to the often undemocratic process that led these landfills to these communities from the start.
In the report, Popkin and his co-author Akshay Krishnan identified 4,314 landfill sites across the country that are good candidates for solar landfill sites. Together, these landfills can generate 63.2 gigawatts, or 83.3 terawatt hours of energy each year. This is just the beginning. Across the country he has over 10,000 closed and inactive landfills, many of which he could not explore. As of 2019, there were only 126 landfill solar sites nationwide, mostly in the Northeast.
“There is an opportunity here to partially correct some environmental injustices,” said Popkin. Landfill solar power alone won’t solve the system-wide problem, but it “could be part of a broader regeneration strategy.”
Sunnyside, for example, has a landfill solar project combined with an employment program. Local residents can enroll in a 10-week solar installation training program and use those skills to clear landfills and build new solar farms on site. Some of these residents will then have the opportunity to stay to maintain the solar farm, Jernigan said. Those who don’t are well placed to find work in the burgeoning Texas solar market. The training program continues on a quarterly basis.
Along with the 50 megawatts of solar power that the Sunnyside solar project will send to the grid (the largest urban solar power plant in the country), about 2 megawatts will go to local solar projects. Helps reduce electricity bills. A nearby land parcel also has a 150-megawatt battery storage facility that stores surplus solar power and sends it to the grid when demand is high, helping to prevent power outages like the one experienced in Texas in February 2021. can be prevented. Environmental sensors will be placed around the solar farm to monitor for leaks in a project that breaks the landfill cap and causes outgassing.
But with the prospect of revitalization comes the specter of gentrification. Popkin hopes that landfill solar power can buck the trend. One reason is that he has little else to do with the land. So revitalizing a landfill won’t suddenly create new space for high-rise apartments or organic grocery stores. Instead, it is hoped that the economic benefits of solar projects, such as vocational training and reduced energy costs through community solar, will stay within the community and provide an intangible boost to residents’ daily lives by replacing distractions. There are landfills with what the community can own.
“Usually it was the disadvantaged people who didn’t have a say in what happened in their own backyard,” Popkin said. Landfill solar can change that paradigm. “It draws attention to underused or neglected sites. I can.”
For communities with landfills around, Landfill solar is an easy, low-maintenance solution with some tangible benefits.
“Solar panels are good neighbors because they don’t make noise,” says Kevin Cafferty, public works director for the City of Scituate, Massachusetts. The town receives credits for electricity sent to the grid from the landfill’s solar farms, and uses those credits for the energy used in its water and wastewater treatment plants. This translates into lower water and sewage charges for taxpayers. What was once a dead space is now a small but productive source of clean energy.
But landfill solar projects are neither easy nor cheap. As the waste sinks into the landfill, the ground above it shifts and can make it difficult to install a solar power project. Developers must be careful not to place solar infrastructure where it can interfere with existing structures such as monitoring and gas collection systems. Landfill capping regulations vary from country to country, so a new capping may be required for a landfill before discussing a solar project.
Before the Inflation Restrictions Act (IRA) was passed, generating 63.2 gigawatts of potential electricity from solar panels in a former landfill might have been a bit of a pipe dream. Landfill solar power must go through a different permitting process than solar power development on a pre-polluted site, and that process adds years to the timeline before construction can begin. Additionally, building a concrete ballast to install the solar panels increases the cost of the project.
But the IRA includes millions of dollars in financing and tax relief for both brownfield and clean energy projects in what the law calls “energy communities.” For example, solar projects in low-income communities get the developer his 10% tax credit, and more than half of the IRA’s funds are prioritized for investment in disadvantaged communities. The combination of funding and tax cuts could spur the development of landfill solar across the country in ways never seen before, Popkin said.
“Suddenly there is a national incentive to build these projects,” Popkin said. “And these incentives can stack.” That’s why local communities and developers are paying renewed attention to abandoned landfills: Community members see landfills as a way to revitalize spaces. Landfill solar power can be looked to, and developers can reap significant financial rewards by partnering with those communities. If so, landfill solar power could be a good way to solve these problems and turn your space into something new.
“We are turning this landfill negative into a positive,” Jernigan said. “I hope our success will be replicated across our communities of color with good results. We need to make our communities a place where the sun shines.”