Solar Power Energizes Capped Landfill in Lowell

Lowell’s former landfill, once affectionately nicknamed ‘Mount Trashmore,’ has gone green. (City of Lowell)

Lowell’s former landfill, once affectionately nicknamed ‘Mount Trashmore,’ has gone green. (City of Lowell)

By KAT FRIEDRICH/ecoRI News contributor

LOWELL, Mass. — The city has resurrected a section of its closed and capped landfill as a solar installation that will provide municipal power. The 1.5-megawatt solar array, which went live in January, is part of the city’s growing attempt to leverage green innovations to build on its industrial legacy.

Once known for its inventions in the textile industry, Lowell is seeking to revitalize local business and build a reputation for sustainability, said Jim Walker, Ameresco’s photovoltaics director. In 2011, Lowell won a Massachusetts “Lead by Example” award for its environmental initiatives.

The landfill solar array will provide an environmental benefit equal to taking 131 cars off the road for a year, according to Ameresco, the Framingham-based contractor leading the project.

Walker said the 6,000-panel solar installation, which is part of a large-scale clean-energy contract between the city and Ameresco, will help the city pay its electricity bills without having to make hard decisions about cutting back on community services. The project is expected to lower the city’s energy bill by about 25 percent.

Although some community solar installations allow local residents to buy renewable energy, this installation will belong solely to the city and doesn’t offer this option.

This multidimensional clean-energy project also includes energy-efficiency improvements at some 40 city-owned buildings. The contract includes weatherizing buildings, and installing boilers, windows and light fixtures.

Solar panels also have been installed on the roof of Lowell Memorial Auditorium, at a water-utility facility, a wastewater facility and at four public schools.

This recent landfill solar project, on nearly 6 acres, is part of a wave of renewable-energy installations at former dumps in Massachusetts, putting the Bay State at the national forefront of landfill-sited solar power. New Jersey has a utility-run program that sites solar power on former industrial sites.

So far, 46 renewable-energy projects of this type have received permits, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Why is siting solar power on landfills a good idea? These projects produce a three-way win-win, said Sarah Weinstein, DEP’s deputy assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Waste Prevention. They provide renewable energy, motivate municipalities to cap landfills and reduce polluted runoff, and create constructive uses for environmentally damaged land. Climate change reduction could be considered a fourth win.

“We try to encourage people to put land that is environmentally damaged into reuse,” Weinstein said. “We have a number of landfills across the state that are inactive. Once they’re capped, you no longer have rainwater percolating through the waste, and stormwater is controlled.”

Solar-friendly policies have helped to drive this initiative forward. Weinstein and Walker both said the state’s net-metering law, which requires utilities to pay local solar power producers for providing energy to the grid, helps these projects succeed. They also said solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) have created incentives for utilities to buy a certain amount of renewable energy.

“There are two other issues,” Weinstein said. “One is to get financing. Towns work that out in various ways. It’s usually a power-purchase agreement and a lease of the top of the landfill to the solar developers. The second hurdle the towns face is working with their utilities to get permission to connect power to the grid. That has taken a long time.”

The nation’s first solar installation on a Superfund site is now being built in Billerica, said John Carrigan, section chief of the Solid Waste Program Section of the DEP’s Northeast Regional Office.