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5 things to know about developing solar on unusable land

For owners of otherwise unusable, contaminated, or degraded properties considering solar photovoltaic energy as a possibility, here are five issues to think about ahead of a time to help make your first conversation with engineers and solar developers as efficient and productive as possible.

Contributed by Ed Summerly, Sr. Principal, GZA GeoEnvironmental and Everett W. Tatelbaum, Vice President, Kearsarge Solar

When it comes to what to do with unusable, underutilized, and impaired properties like Brownfields, landfills, gravel pits, petroleum tank farms, parking lots, and the concrete slabs of old factory sites, one of the best options available today is to turn them into solar energy farms.

We know because we’ve done it, multiple times, on properties in cities and towns across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York—even Superfund-listed closed landfills where a critical consideration was to make sure the protective cap over contaminated materials could safely support the weight of racks of ballasted solar panels and the construction equipment to install them; as well as ensuring the protection and long-term maintenance of landfill monitoring infrastructure.

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For owners of otherwise unusable, contaminated, or degraded properties considering solar photovoltaic energy as a possibility, here are five issues to think about ahead of a time to help make your first conversation with engineers and solar developers as efficient and productive as possible:

  1. Distance to a utility interconnection. While everything else on our ‘5 things’ list involves the condition of the property and its neighbors, the first and often most decisive factor in determining whether a site will work for solar energy has nothing to do with location conditions: It’s the question of how far your property is from the closest location a solar farm can be practicably interconnected to the electric power grid to feed in energy. Put most simply, you can’t just feed 100 MW or 50 or even 10 or 5 MW of solar-generated electricity into the grid anywhere. Depending on the size of the potential solar array, you need a location with adequate line capacity, which has to be at least three-phase 15kV class or higher, to bring the power into the grid. The cost and complexity of needing to build miles of new power lines to reach an interconnection point can quickly turn a solar proposal uneconomic. “Where’s the closest viable grid interconnection?” should be your very first question.
  2. Wetlands and endangered species. Even if your property is unusable for housing, commercial, or office development, it may be an important and thriving habitat for threatened and protected species of animals and plants and home to ecologically sensitive and valuable wetlands areas. Options abound for sensitively working with and managing these issues while still delivering successful projects, but there are few better examples of the importance of the “no surprises rule” than identifying wetlands and endangered-species concerns as early as possible in your project planning.
  3. Fulfilling remediation requirements at contaminated sites. Particularly at Superfund or state-listed cleanup sites, making sure that a solar farm won’t slow or reverse environmental progress is critical. We experienced this challenge while turning three closed landfills in Rhode Island (Rose Hill, West Kingstown, and the University of Rhode Island) into landmark public-private partnership solar farms. This was a first-of-its-kind project for Rhode Island. Drawing upon a successful permitting track record in neighboring states, GZA and Kearsarge developed and presented to the site owners, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, a permitting process they adopted. Based on a GZA geotechnical study that included bearing-capacity analysis, we designed custom-sized ballast blocks for each location to maintain minimal ground pressure and protect the landfill caps. To further protect the cap and prevent contaminated materials or groundwater from leaking, GZA and Kearsarge’s construction team determined where and how to use low-ground-pressure equipment, including specialized cranes for transformer installation, to manage construction activities and coordinate construction to avoid problematic weather and/or ground conditions. Post-construction, when it became apparent that there were inaccuracies in the original as-built drawings provided for the landfill cap that had been constructed by the site owners more than a decade before the solar installation, GZA completed the necessary stormwater analysis and restoration design to address unexpected erosion after the solar array installation.
  4. Zoning/NIMBYism. Beyond the threshold question of whether zoning will allow solar on a given parcel, it’s important to evaluate how close your project will be to residential neighbors and what kinds of concerns they might have during both the construction and operating phases of the project. Get a clear sense of what they might see and hear from their front porch or back deck and how you might adjust the design of the project to eliminate or minimize concerns. It’s also worth knowing the overall context for solar in the community in which you hope to build. Is there a backlash underway in this community against solar energy because of what local residents perceive to be excessive construction of solar farms on former farms, or on sites where clear-cutting of trees was required to create space for solar panels? Even if your project will be a clear win for the environment, knowing the overall political atmosphere for solar can help you plan for success.
  5. Varying local subsidies. One project we’ve worked on converted a portion of a 55-acre city landfill in Haverhill, Mass., to an 8,600-panel solar PV and energy storage facility that can meet the annual electricity needs of about 500 homes and provide support for the regional grid with energy storage. This project has put back into positive economic use a site that had been closed and vacant since the 1970s—and where nearly 7,000 buried barrels of industrial and hazardous waste were identified in 2005 and remediated. However, this is a project that would not have worked financially for stakeholders had it been in any of a number of states that offer much smaller solar incentives than does Massachusetts. In fact, about 30 U.S. states do not offer any support to solar energy projects, while the value of solar incentives in states with programs vary widely, influencing project economics and feasibility

Finally, another good question to think about ahead of time isn’t so much about whether a given piece of otherwise unusable land can or can’t support solar PV—it’s identifying the extent to which you can make direct use of the electricity it produces to offset or eliminate your current utility bills. With some solar PV hosting deals, a property owner will collect both lease income and energy cost savings. Putting the energy your solar farm produces on your formerly unusable land directly to work reducing your utility bill can make a great project even greater and more economically compelling.

About the authors:

Ed Summerly is a Senior Principal and manages GZA GeoEnvironmental’s Providence, R.I., office. Ed has more than 35 years of experience in assessing and remediating impaired properties throughout the northeast.  An important aspect of Ed’s work has been putting these sites back into productive use, and solar energy development has become an important part that work. Everett Tatelbaum is Senior Vice President at Kearsarge Energy where he currently leads Development.  Since 2010 Kearsarge has raised more than $450 million of equity, tax equity, and debt for the development and financing of more than 170 MW of solar and energy storage projects with a focus on public-private partnerships.  Projects include commercial and utility-scale solar PV and energy storage on capped landfills, brownfields, agricultural land, rooftops and parking lot canopies across the U.S.  His experience includes project origination, project development and permitting, construction management, project operations, government affairs, and structured finance.  

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