Trash to treasure: Capped landfills are being converted to solar arrays — and, now, there’s tax incentive to do so

Environmental firms are expecting years’ worth of abundant work to bring a renewable transformation to landfill sites that have already taken in as much trash as they’re able to.

Why’s that? Well, one person’s trash … is another’s tax credit.

Solar installations at landfill sites were already gaining steam in recent years in the Garden State. Now, these projects might also benefit from a lesser-touted feature of 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act. Solar projects on certain landfills and brownfield sites could be eligible for a 10% tax credit boost due to new provisions in that federal overhaul.

Aside from the extra monetary incentive, closed or inactive landfills — of which there are reportedly more than 10,000 nationwide — are becoming more of a first option for solar arrays as space becomes more limited for large-scale renewable projects, those involved in the planning for these projects say.

Benjamin Gindville. (Stout & Caldwell)

Benjamin Gindville, who conducts and manages environmental studies at Cinnaminson-based Stout & Caldwell, said solar developers are looking for highly particular sites for installations. They can’t sit solar arrays underneath towering trees or buildings that would impact the ability of these panels to collect energy from sunlight — and it’s not popular to trade the ecological benefits of a dense forest that would need to be cleared away for another resource, anyways.

“With landfills, there’s just no downsides in the sense of environmental detriment,” Gindville said. “Landfills are designed to only hold so much refuse, and, once you fill up that cell with refuse, it’s not suitable for development. It then has to be monitored in perpetuity. So, just adding a solar array there seems obvious. And it’s being received well.”

As New Jersey municipalities are looking to advance solar initiatives, landfills and other brownfield sites, which might include similarly contaminated former industrial plants, are being viewed as some of the most appealing options for local leaders, Gindville said. The increase in permitting work that local firms are receiving today reflects that.

When landfill sites are capped, meaning the contaminated materials in the waste there have been sealed underneath covers, there’s not perceived to be much downside.

“There are some design considerations, such as how to keep landfills properly capped,” Gindville added. “Keeping material in place takes some engineering, because you wouldn’t want mounting hardware and screw foundations to compromise the landfill’s cap.”

Sustainability research organization RMI released a report in late 2021 that suggested closed landfills could support more than 60 gigawatts of solar capacity. That adds up to enough power for 7.8 million homes.

In the span of a year, local governments nationwide announced more than 20 landfill solar projects, including three of the country’s largest projects to date, according to RMI.

One of those major projects can be found in the township of Mount Olive. A former landfill site there, the former Combe Fill North Landfill, now hosts one of the largest such developments in North America. There was a dedication ceremony last year for what’s now New Jersey’s largest capped landfill solar array. In February, Jersey Central Power & Light announced it completed a grid connection to the site.

The 102-acre site is being operated by NJR Clean Energy Ventures, the renewable energy subsidiary of New Jersey Resources. The company anticipates the repurposing of these brownfields into what the renewable industry has termed “brightfields” will play a significant part in New Jersey’s energy transition.

A company spokesman for NJR Clean Energy Ventures pointed to New Jersey’s Solar Act of 2012, which identified brownfield and landfills as ideal locations for solar.

“New Jersey currently has a robust pipeline of brownfield (and) landfill opportunities to develop and, with continued policy support, we believe these projects will be a great benefit to the state and its residents,” the spokesperson said. “Utilizing sites that would otherwise lay dormant to generate renewable electricity is a great success story for New Jersey.”

Gindville also expects that in the coming years, the opportunity to do more of these projects won’t be thrown away.

“There’s already a lot of (interested parties) trying to investigate and site locations for solar arrays to get approvals in place,” he said.