Solar on landfills and parking lots

By Elisa Campbell

The climate crisis requires us to work quickly to reduce fossil fuel use. We need to create policies and incentives to encourage rapid development of solar where we most want it. We can’t spend months, let alone years, obtaining the “perfect” versus other possibilities.

Many of us prefer that solar projects be put on already disturbed land and over parking lots. Are we willing to support state subsidies for commercial rooftop and parking lot solar arrays? Are we willing to pay more for electricity to cover the true costs of building the facilities (with subsidies for low-income ratepayers)? We have to take action to make change happen and solve the problems that we who have benefited from industrialization have caused.

Massachusetts has been pursuing putting solar photovoltaics on closed landfills. Amherst is currently doing this on the closed landfill north of Belchertown Road.

credit Elisa Campbell

According to Stephanie Ciccarello, the Town’s Sustainability Coordinator, town government will be an “off-taker” for the power produced by this project – we will get credit for the power generated there. That’s expected to be 4 megawatts, which covers about two-thirds of the Town’s energy use for buildings, lights, etc. In addition, the company building (and owning) the project will pay the Town $78,000 a year for 20 years as rent for the land (some of that will be in the form of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILOT).

Many of us wish a project like this could have happened earlier. It didn’t for three basic reasons: opposition by neighbors to the previously proposed site, discovery of an endangered species on that site, and the complexity of siting and arranging for permits, etc.

The first proposal, in 2015, included siting collectors on both discontinued landfills (north and south of Belchertown Road). There was strenuous opposition by some of the homeowners abutting the southern landfill, including claims the landfill was not safe for solar arrays (untrue) and court challenges. The argument that held up was the discovery of an endangered bird species – the Grasshopper Sparrow – using the grassland on top of the old landfill as a nesting site. So the proposal was changed to put collectors on the northern landfill, and create a conservation easement for the Sparrow on the southern landfill (a fence will be installed to protect the birds from dogs, etc.).

Any project needs funding and to meet many criteria. The site has to be carefully studied to be sure it is suitable. The Department of Public Utilities and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have to issue permits, and the local utility company – in this case, Eversource – has to agree to purchase the power. Someone must come up with the large dollar amount to do all this preparatory environmental and legal work, to buy the materials, actually install the panels, and pay all the costs of connecting to the grid. All this before any money comes in.

One selected developer had financial problems during the years of permitting and the Town had to select another. In order to make it work financially, the developer needs to find a customer able and willing to commit to paying for the electricity that will be generated – to be an off-taker. The developer can’t build the project unless all the power is committed (they won’t get a loan without evidence it can be paid back); in our situation, the Town is able to commit for all 4 megawatts the facility will generate.

Everything I said about the permits and costs of siting photovoltaics on a closed landfill applies equally to putting them on canopies over a parking lot. But more so: the steel pillars needed to hold the canopies are a major expense, for example. Also, since an existing parking lot surface will be torn up to install the electrical cables, concrete footings for the pillars, etc. it is best to do it on a parking lot that was due to be resurfaced, not one with a new surface. The overall result is that creating a solar site on a canopy over a parking lot costs twice as much as creating one on open land.

We have several examples of canopies over parking lots in Amherst, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts. According to Ezra Small, Campus Sustainability Manager, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created grant and incentive programs for state agencies to create solar projects on their properties, and the University has received significant grant funds over the course of the past five years or so of canopy development on campus.

Solar canopies over parking lots were in earlier stages of market development in 2015, so the first project on campus, near the Robsham Memorial Visitors Center on Massachusetts Avenue, was a pilot project. UMass put up its own capital funds, combined with a Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Leading by Example grant of $268,000 to fund the project, but since then has partnered with commercial developers on much larger canopy projects: the developer comes up with the capital, UMass enters into a Site License Agreement with them for the parking lots, and like the Town with the landfill project, has a 20-year agreement to purchase the power. There are now five parking lots generating over 10 million kilowatt hours per year of renewable electricity, the equivalent of the amount used by 1,430 Massachusetts homes or about 30 percent of homes in Amherst.

The projects have definitely been a success: without taking on the capital expense of installing the solar canopies, UMass has a fixed rate for electricity expenses for 20 years, has less need for snowplowing, and shows its commitment, on campus, to solar power.

You probably have noticed that the two private colleges in Amherst have not done projects over their own parking lots. Hampshire College does supply its own energy from the large ground-mount array along Bay Road.

Nor have commercial properties in Amherst or nearby Hadley installed arrays over parking lots. River Valley Co-op, working with Co-op Power, put collectors on the roof and over the parking lot on their new building in Easthampton.

The state offers significant tax incentives for solar canopies, but not enough to make up for the additional costs. Additional complications include important infrastructure or easements under parking lots (such as for sewage, water, or gas lines) or multiple owners. Similarly, the roofs of large commercial buildings often have utilities (as for air conditioning) on them and were generally not built with adequate support for solar panels.

For more information on green energy projects in Amherst, see our previous post.

3 thoughts on “Solar on landfills and parking lots”

  1. Important issue, and complex, meriting careful thought. Article and comments are each especially helpful. To clarify a bit for the record regarding the actual situation with the NIMBY neighbors in Amherst Woods who shut down the solar proposal, there were complicating factors:
    — The dispute dates to 2010 onward, not 2015.
    — The endangered sparrow species was not discovered – its presence had been known and protected there for years – but the inability of the town to now disregard its endangerment was a disappointing discovery for Town and erstwhile developers.
    — The abutting neighbors had purchased homes with express representation that a covenant existed to (dating to Town’s acceptance of funds to cap the landfill in the 80’s) to prohibit any development of the landfill cap through 2084 AD; as testament to the landfill’s fragility, the town had threatened abutters with ticketing for walking dogs on the capped field.
    — Environmental evaluation confirmed the cap had been built substantially below code and below even the more-lenient, negotiated EPA concession thickness – and was eroded to non-existence in many areas – meanwhile ample evidence of contamination existed downhill.
    — The favored bidder quoted efficiencies, yields and revenue forecasts were two standard deviations better than the other five bidding developers; once awarded the winning bidder immediately backed away from its rosy representations to renegotiate its power generation commitment.
    A good initial dialogue began among homeowners and town representatives, and might well have led to agreement on setbacks and noise abatement etc. allowing the project to proceed. However, at a key point John Musante – a dedicated public servant whom many of us admired for so many years, and so many reasons – moved to end-run their concerns. Expediency, not community benefit, seemed the motivation behind the town’s and the developers’ behavior, which included mobilizing popular vilification against the “wealthy” homeowners. Although there were and are wide ranges of relative “wealth” among Amherst Woods property owners, all were tarred with the same brush, and vilified with equal vigor as “anti-solar!”
    So, ultimately the project fell apart – despite wide support in town, including among many of the neighbors. It might all have been different had a more inclusive, transparent and cooperative approach been taken. Maybe this time, we can have that.

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  2. Elisa, this is an interesting and complicated topic. Thanks for your thoughtful and comprehensive piece. What is missing in Amherst and in most of the country is the resolve to take on climate change in a serious and effective fashion. A good example is how the town is choosing to utilize the substantial Covid relief funds that it is set to receive. Almost nothing is being dedicated to mitigating the effects of climate change. If Amherst were serious, it would institute the following:

    • Much more stringent building codes for all construction. Residents will have to adjust to living in smaller highly energy efficient homes as the per-square-foot cost of such homes is greater than conventional construction.
    •Create a mechanism that helps to subsidize new energy efficient construction, or provide tax abatements for such construction for both commercial and residential structures.
    • Create a mechanism that helps to subsidize deep energy retrofits to existing buildings.
    • Create a significant mechanism for assisting homeowners in the purchase and installation of solar panels and efficient heating system upgrades. Only serious incentives will make it happen.

    Installing solar panels is a great first step, but they have to be installed in places that make the most sense. Building substantial steel structures over parking lots is not a good choice. The cost of fabricating and installing what amounts to the structural framework of a building just to support solar panels makes no sense. The energy required is enormous and wasteful, and it will take years to offset the carbon released to do so. UMass operates a huge natural gas/oil fired power plant that was built in the not too distant past. It will have to do a lot more than installing a few solar panels over a parking lot to offset that choice. The installation of solar panels above a parking lot on University Drive is more of a publicity stunt than a cost effective solution. That land is very close to the university and would have been better suited to medium or high density, highly energy efficient student housing. Perhaps it could be done in a private/public partnership between a private developer and the state. It would take cars off of the road and replace a parking lot with something that would help to do that.

    It is also ill advised to place solar panels on productive agricultural fields. This flies in the face of buying local. Purchasing agricultural staples locally reduces greenhouse gas emissions and support local farmers. Some farmers are attracted to allowing solar panels on their fields because it is a predictable source of income that is not dependent on weather or other variables. Farming is hard work, and challenging at times, so it is difficult to fault farmers for allowing solar panels on their fields. But, there is a trade off. What is the solution?

    Installing solar panels on existing residential and commercial roofs is one of the best methods to reduce our carbon footprint, and it is the least impactful on the environment. If better incentives are created to do so, then it will happen. The town would have to spend less on other electives to make it happen. So far I see no real movement towards that scenario.

    Solar on capped landfills is also a great option, regardless of nimby neighbors. In the case of the failed project on the Amherst landfill, it was an opportunity lost. Neighbors would have to sacrifice in order to make it happen. That is the crux of the whole matter. How much are Amherst residents willing to sacrifice?

    There are other things that will have to be done to stem global warming, and they will require more sacrifice from the citizens of Amherst and the rest of the world, but that is fodder for another article.

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  3. Thanks, Elisa. An excellent column explaining the complications of siting solar arrays over parking lots and roof-tops. Those locations seem so obvious to the proponents of solar power, but it’s good to review the hidden costs and difficulties.

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