This summer, residents in the central Vermont community of Rutland began lighting their homes with energy collected by 7,722 solar panels strategically positioned atop the city’s capped landfill.
With renewables on the rise, transforming a dormant dump into a solar farm isn’t so unusual. What’s rare about this particular $10 million waste-to-watts project is that it’s the first to incorporate a backup system that lets the city store and deliver power to its emergency shelter when the electric grid goes down.
“This is a model of being creative and finding the highest and best use for unusable land,” Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras tells Waste 360. “Technology, in the form of renewable energy, caught up with the dirt and garbage below and made for a very productive use.”
The landfill operated for some 40 years before the city shut it down in the late 1980s.
Green Mountain Power started constructing what it has christened Stafford Hill Solar Farm on the landfill about a year ago, spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure says. The panels, situated on about 10 acres, went live on July 31. They generate two megawatts of electricity, enough to power 365 homes year-round. Rutland’s population hovers around 16,495.
Through April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 151 renewable energy projects installed nationwide on 144 landfills, contaminated lands and mine sites. Close to two-thirds of these installations are large-scale, meaning they have a capacity of at least one megawatt. Combined, they can generate a total of 1,046 megawatts. Those statistics are maintained by the EPA’s RE-Powering the Land Initiative, launched in 2008.
In partnership with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), EPA specialists have created criteria for evaluating contaminated land as potential sites for generating energy from solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and landfill gas methane. Thus far, the agency has reviewed 11,000 sites and nearly 15 million acres.
Colchester, Vt.-based Green Mountain Power is intent on converting Rutland into the solar capital of New England, Schnure says. That goal, part of a pledge the power company made after merging with Rutland-based Central Vermont Public Service three years ago, also highlights the city as a testing ground for energy initiatives. In tandem, the utility moved its Energy Innovation Center into Rutland’s core to try to revitalize a moribund downtown.
Like any mayor tasked with recharging a down-on-its-heels community, Louras sees no downside to collaborating with Green Mountain Power. The $30,600 the city receives annually from the utility to rent the landfill space is just one boon.
Louras is especially jazzed that the solar system includes 3.2 megawatt hours of lead-acid battery storage and one megawatt hour of lithium ion battery storage. (A megawatt hour is equivalent to the amount of electricity 330 homes use during one hour) That portion is set up as a micro-grid, a separate circuit that can be disconnected from the electric grid in an emergency, thus providing hours and hours of local power. The batteries are scheduled to go online Sept. 23.
The Department of Energy (DOE) lauds Stafford Hill as the first micro-grid to use solar energy and battery backup, without access to other fuels. The DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability provided $235,000 for the project.
Stored battery power would flow directly to Rutland High School, which serves as the city’s emergency shelter, and is about 100 yards from the landfill.
Hurricane Irene in 2011 was just one in a parade of severe wind, snow and rainstorms that have rocked Rutland during Louras’s 8½ years as mayor. The old emergency shelter, which was swamped during Irene, was in the floodplain and didn’t have access to an alternative power source. And even though the high school had already been designated as the shelter by then, Louras was nervous about relying on a backup generator when power lines were knocked out.
In a world where climate change is here, not somewhere off in the future, he says this solar project on a landfill represents the marriage of the sometimes-competing philosophies of mitigation and adaptation.
“The word that applies here is resiliency,” he says about being prepared for weather that he knows will roil his region again. “State-of-the-art storage allows us to be ready for storms, and be able to support thousands of displaced people.”
In short, it’s a relief.
“I’m able to have peace of mind,” Louras says. “When the next storm comes, I’ll be able to focus on other things.”