A handful of states, mostly based in the Northeast, have incentivized, or at the very least encouraged, solar development on decommissioned landfills within their borders. These plots of land are often untouched and otherwise unfit for commercial development that requires even minor civil work because their soil is capped and should not be penetrated.
“There can be an overwhelming demand for greenfield space. I think that as states have recognized that, they see these types of properties that are already low value and don’t have a higher or better use that they make excellent candidates for solar,” said Annika Colston, CEO of AC Power, a New York solar contractor developing projects solely on landfills, brownfields and other contaminated sites.
AC Power started in 2016 and focused solar construction on landfills in New Jersey before branching into other states in 2019. Going into 2024, the company has 16 landfill solar projects under development.
The momentum this niche solar market is experiencing originates not from the federal incentives for energy communities and brownfields found in the Inflation Reduction Act but from states with solar installation goals and incentives that include landfill development, and Colston said without them these projects might be too expensive to develop.
New Jersey has two state incentives — the Competitive Solar Incentive Program and Successful Solar Incentive Program — that provide solar renewable energy credits to project owners building on particular sites, including landfills. The New York State Energy Research & Development Authority made the Build-Ready program for encouraging and simplifying solar development on underused sites like landfills in New York State.
Maryland plans to generate 50% of its electricity with renewable energy by 2030, with a 14.5% carveout for solar that is prioritizing development on brownfields. The Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection provides incentives for cleaning and reusing brownfield projects, and as of 2022, the state has completed more than 220 MW of brownfield solar projects.
The Virginia Dept. of Environmental Quality has a dedicated brownfield assessment and redevelopment program, and the state provides grants to municipalities to redevelop brownfields through the Virginia Brownfields Restoration and Economic Redevelopment Assistance Fund. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency maintains a loan program for redeveloping brownfields and former landfills, and provides additional resources for building these projects.
This growth in state support for solar landfill projects is also bolstered by community solar programs. Colston said landfills and brownfields are ideal for community solar projects for a few reasons.
“For the most part, that’s really because these sites are not situated near other forms of offtake. So, you can’t pursue a net-metered program or another offtake opportunity,” she said. “They’re often too small for any kind of utility-scale, so they’re really well suited for community solar.”
And since they’re former landfills, grid infrastructure is already in place from prior operations at these sites. Landowners are responsible for maintaining landfills with few prospects for redevelopment once capped. There’s an environmental benefit to remediating the land with solar development and an economic benefit to the landowner — and nearby residents — to building a community solar subscriber base along with the project.
“There’s really nothing else that can be done on site. Solar presents a great opportunity to recoup and reduce some of the costs, because a solar developer will take them over,” Colston said. “They might take over responsibility for mowing or snow removal or some monitoring. Then the lease revenue that they pay you can be used to offset the rest of your O&M costs. And if you are engaged in the community, and you’re selling power through community solar, then you have those benefits that you’re bringing in the community.”
A direct example is a 10-MW project New Jersey solar developer CEP Renewables completed in November on a landfill in Southampton. The property was delinquent and CEP helped the city recoup $2 million in back taxes through the project.
Since they are contaminated sites, there are additional regulatory steps and construction considerations to building solar on landfills. Environmental agencies are engaged to ensure whatever is contained beneath the soil doesn’t become unearthed, so that means using non-penetrative foundations like ballast blocks to secure the array and, in certain cases, lighter installation machinery must be used on site.
Landfills aren’t the most convenient choice for building solar, but there are thousands of inactive ones within the United States, and their popularity is growing among developers willing to jump through the regulatory hoops to install there.
“We see such an increased level of interest in landowners — corporates, private landowners, municipalities — there’s a real eagerness and excitement to push these projects forward,” Colson said. “I think people can appreciate the timeline that we’re on, that there’s more funds available for the clean energy transition than ever before in our lifetime. It’s our responsibility to get out there and use that.”
This story is part of SPW’s 2024 Trends in Solar. Read all of this year’s trends here.