Brightfields reclaim landfills for solar farms. Also, the worldwide spike in energy prices is catastrophic for some countries.
From Brownfield to Brightfield
Let’s start with the obvious thing — the less we send to landfills, the better off we are.
They smell bad. No one wants big mountains of trash down the street from where they live. They’re made up of everything we didn’t use or couldn’t recycle. Landfills represent our inefficiency.
Although closed landfills are often capped, covered and planted with green grass, they’re still difficult to reclaim for most purposes. The waste that has been dumped there continues to settle for years, often making them too unstable to build on. Inevitably, they off-gas methane as the organic materials that have been dumped there decay. And the capping materials, which are intended to contain hazardous substances, aren’t effective once they’ve been penetrated. That means that any kind of construction work is challenging. Developers refer to them as brownfields, and usually won’t go near them.
Unless, of course, we’re talking about utility-scale solar energy developers. Closed landfills offer many qualities that make them ideal for solar energy farms: cheap land nobody else wants, plenty of wide-open surface, no tree cover and adjacent energy transmission lines.
Brownfields that have been turned into solar farms are known as “brightfields,”(1) and they are a growing opportunity for utility-scale solar. There has been 80% growth in solar projects on landfills over the past five years (2), and the trend looks to continue.
There are unique considerations for brightfields, however.
As landfills age, they tend to shift and settle less, making them better candidates for solar farms. Proper venting and methane capture also play a big part in making a conversion feasible. The gas is sometimes captured and piped to gas-powered generating plants. One of the biggest concerns is construction technology. Once a landfill is capped, maintaining waste containment is the top priority. That means the ground can’t be penetrated. Deploying solar panels on capped dumps requires special construction techniques and equipment.
Mount Olive solar farm is one of the most successful brightfield conversions, and is at the forefront of the movement.
Opened in December 2022, it is the largest brightfield project in North America. Once known as the Combe Fill North Landfill Superfund site, the solar farm now has a 25.6 megawatt capacity. It operated as a landfill for more than 10 years, closing soon after the federal government enacted stricter regulations for waste disposal in 1976. When the operators went bankrupt in 1981, the property had not been properly capped and closed.
Then the Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund site, allotting money for remediation. Turning the dump into productive land again took over 40 years, but the solar panels housed on it now power more than 4,000 homes. Another bonus is, the property was acquired through a redevelopment and tax lien foreclosure process that put $2.3 billion in the city’s coffers. Along with powering homes, the site adds annual tax revenue of around $50,000 to the city and employs several residents. (3)
There are over 10,000 closed landfill sites in the United States (1). With the Inflation Reduction Act offering such strong incentives to developers, it’s likely we’ll see more projects like Mount Olive in coming years.
Energy prices spiked between 62% and 113% in 2022 due to the Russian war in Ukraine
When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, much of the global response involved boycotting that country’s energy exports, with the goal of putting an economic squeeze on Russia. In 2021, Russia accounted for 12% of the oil produced globally, while its natural gas share was even larger. Removing that much fuel from the market drove up the cost of oil, coal, and natural gas all over the world. Americans felt the pain of those increases at the pump and in their utility costs. But worldwide, total household energy costs spiked by as much as 113% over the past year. (1)
For many, the largest part of that increase came in the form of indirect costs, such as the cost of groceries rising because transporting them has become more expensive. (2) The study, published in the journal Nature Energy, zeroed in on Rwanda as a case study. Although most of the population does not own autos and cooks with wood, charcoal, or other biomass fuels, the country was among the hardest hit by the price hikes. The prices of food and other necessities skyrocketed from the increased cost attached to transportation and distribution of goods.
The problem was made worse by the rise in inflation that followed the COVID-19 pandemic. The steepest increase was felt in places that could least afford it. Overall, spiking energy costs accounted for a 4.8% increase in household spending worldwide. The increase may drive as many as 141 million people into extreme poverty if they receive no relief. The study warns that as long as the global economy is driven by fossil fuels, it will continue to be vulnerable to price spikes as a result of supply interruptions.
- Study reveals toll of global energy crisis as ‘total’ energy costs spike, Australian Broadcast Corporation
- Burden of the global energy price crisis on households, Nature Energy
The Weekly Sunsong
“Everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.”
Fifty years ago this week, Pink Floyd released the era-defining album, The Dark Side of the Moon. It would stay on the Billboard 200 chart for over 15 years straight and continues to be one of the best-selling albums on a weekly basis.