At the end of their lifespan, landfills are typically capped and grassed over, but they remain contaminated, unstable, and unsuitable for development. These capped landfills are referred to as “Brownfield sites”, which are defined as any former industrial or commercial site whose future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination. However, by installing solar farms on retired landfills, Brownfields can be turned into what are known as “Brightfields”, defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as any solar project built on a brownfield site. Brightfields are becoming increasingly popular and provide many benefits to the surrounding communities.
There are several reasons that landfills have advantages over other sites when installing solar farms. Installing over landfills can help reduce project cycle times by streamlining permitting and zoning, improving project economics with reduced land cost and tax incentives, gaining community support through land revitalization efforts, and protecting open space. Brightfields can replace what was previously as an eyesore with something the community can take ownership of, transforming a liability into an asset. Brightfields help communities see a property that has been vacant for years become a facility that can serve to save on energy costs, create construction jobs, receive property tax revenue, and prevent blackouts.
The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with the respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Landfills have historically been placed in low-income communities. Therefore, repurposing old landfills can help us move towards a more environmentally just society by replacing something that was detrimenting the community with something that can benefit it.
The IRA includes millions of dollars in funding and tax breaks for brownfield clean energy projects and energy projects in low-income communities. Since solar farms on landfills are likely to fit both of these criteria. Brownfield cleanup grants can help offset the cost of solar farms, as the EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative encourages renewable energy development on currently or formerly contaminated land.
The country is already beginning to develop Brightfield sites. So far, 207 MW of energy from 21 landfill solar projects has been produced throughout the country. According to an RMI Brightfield analysis, closed landfills could end up hosting more than 60 GW of solar capacity, enough to power the entire state of South Carolina. Scituate Landfill, a former 29-acre municipal landfill, became a 3 MW solar PV system constructed using local labor. This system produces 3.825 million kWh of clean energy per year. The town expects $200,000 in annual savings from net metering, and has implemented a solar curriculum for the students in the town. According to Al Bangert, from the Scituate Department of Public Works, “The town initially pursued this installation for the revenue it would generate, but the bigger payout turned out to be the reputation it garnered and the positive perspective in the community of doing the right thing for the environment.”