Over the past five years, there has been an 80% increase in landfill solar projects in the United States. At present, solar landfills in the United States have a total capacity of about 2.4 GW; however, it is estimated that the country’s existing 10,000 closed landfills could grow this capacity by at least 25-fold – or enough to power the state of South Carolina. What’s more, combining new Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) incentives could mean a brownfield site could receive anywhere between a 40 and 70% investment tax credit. This is due to the millions of dollars in IRA funding and tax breaks for both brownfields as well as solar energy projects located in low-income communities. Solar Power World recently had the chance to complete a Q&A with Chris Ichter, EVP at CEP Renewables, on the rise in landfill solar projects as well as the development challenges and future outlook of these projects.
Why has there been such a large increase in the number of landfill solar projects in recent years?
Chris: States have begun to think more critically about where they are siting utility-scale generation projects. At present, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York are home to 73% of all U.S. utility-scale landfill solar projects. This is not a coincidence. Many of our brownfield projects have taken place in New Jersey, a state that has a specific brownfield carve out in its renewable portfolio standard. Another prime example of a state with successful, targeted landfill solar policies is Massachusetts, which has provided subsidies for renewable energy projects on landfills as well as offered technical assistance. Massachusetts also specifically disincentivized solar built on undeveloped land. By 2020, 52% of all utility-scale landfill solar projects in the U.S. were in Massachusetts, despite having only 7% of the landfills in the country.
Besides targeted state policies and incentives, landfills are ideal for solar energy systems in the sense that there is no other appropriate land use for such sites. For example, they cannot be used for commercial purposes due to the need to avoid piercing the sensitive landfill cap, which could pose an environmental hazard for local communities. Residents are also more likely to approve of converting an eyesore such as a landfill into a clean energy generating field, as opposed to building a solar project on undeveloped land that could otherwise be preserved.
What are some of the current key challenges with landfill and brownfield solar project development?
The primary challenge is the cost, which is one of the main drivers of most renewable energy projects. As opposed to other solar projects, landfill solar projects need to be ballasted and not post-driven to avoid piercing the landfill cap. The ballast blocks of course add to the project costs, especially in recent years, with the cost of concrete having increased more than 10% over the past year alone. Additionally, many landfills are purposefully located far away from residents and businesses. This translates to the projects being located far away from critical infrastructure, which makes interconnection costs much higher.
The cost of permitting is also a lot higher with these projects, as we have to follow a much more complex set of requirements compared to greenfield projects. While we still have to meet the same permitting requirements that greenfields have to – from wetlands to flood hazards, we have to also abide by brownfield permitting requirements. Every state has their own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) equivalent that enforces state statutes for landfill development to prevent any contamination from spreading to other properties. There is also a greater amount of due diligence when approaching a landfill solar project. We have to focus closely on the geotechnical analysis results to ensure that the solar system will not sink into the landfill cap over time, which adds to the design and permitting costs.
Are there sufficient incentives for developers considering landfill solar projects?
The incentives are still too low and too many unnecessary hurdles are put in place. While each set of incentives depends on the specific region, local level incentives can include property tax incentives or municipal contributions to a project, such as land. On the state level, the incentives often involve renewable energy certificates (RECs). The reason incentives should be increased across the board and unnecessary hurdles should be removed is because there are significant benefits to converting a previously unusable landfill site into a solar energy generating asset, such as providing additional tax revenue to cities and remediating contaminated properties that will be cared for and monitored over time. The alternative is that these properties are abandoned. Additionally, thousands of jobs are created in the process of building each landfill solar project, as rate payers benefit in a multitude of ways from landfill solar projects. It will be interesting to see how IRA incentives influence landfill solar project development.
What are some recent examples of landfill solar projects that CEP Renewables has successfully completed?
We recently completed the 25.6-MW Mount Olive project in New Jersey, the largest solar array ever developed on a superfund landfill property in the country. This project transformed a U.S. EPA Superfund site into a clean energy field while also enabling the township to recoup nearly $2.3 million in past taxes and employing hundreds of workers. After 40 years, the property now has a long-term owner in CEP Renewables that will be responsible for maintaining the landfill cap for the duration of the life of the facility. Notably, the owner purchased the property by way of the redevelopment and tax lien foreclosure process – a structure that was entirely unique and that won the project the Award for Innovation in Governance from the New Jersey League of Municipalities. Mount Olive now provides clean power for thousands of homes – all while contributing to New Jersey’s renewable energy mandate of 50% clean energy by 2030.
CEP has extensive experience in the redevelopment of environmentally impaired sites, including the BFI South Brunswick landfill, the Old Bridge Clay Pits site, the Warren Quarry and Sand Pit in Monroe Township, the BEMS Landfill in Southampton Township and the Fibermark Paper Plant brownfield in Holland Township. Our deep knowledge and experience in redeveloping challenging sites like these for solar projects is part of why the local township agreed to enter into a public-private partnership for us to redevelop the Mount Olive landfill solar project.
What is the outlook on solar landfill project development?
CEP is currently under development on over a dozen landfill or brownfield redevelopment projects in New Jersey. In addition to providing greater state incentives for landfill solar projects, reducing barriers to entry for developers, grid modernization is also crucial, as projects will become much less expensive if it is more streamlined to interconnect to the local grid. I’m also remaining optimistic about the impact that the IRA could potentially have on the development of landfill solar projects.