Bill Envisions Solar Farms on Leaking Landfills

Advocates say abandoned dumps now leaching toxic materials into water supplies would make good sites for solar facilities -- even in Pinelands

For decades, state and local officials have been stumped by what to do with hundreds of old garbage dumps that were never properly closed and now threaten water supplies.

Can solar farms provide the answer?

There are some who think so. Hoping to find a productive use for old landfills and quarries, lawmakers have proposed a bill designating solar farms as a permitted
land use in every municipality in New Jersey, including areas in the Pinelands preservation
area. (Outside the Pinelands, the bill also would allow wind farms.)

Hundreds of abandoned dumps, many once operated by towns, were never properly capped to prevent toxic materials from leaching into water supplies. In the Pinelands alone, there are more than 80 old landfills, only two of which have been properly capped, according to Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), the sponsor of the measure.

“If we continue the current pace of capping and remediating landfills in the Pinelands, it’ll be three centuries until those lands are once again usable land,” Whelan said.

Turning such spaces into solar farms is not a novel concept. Ocean Township officials have proposed converting 22 acres of the Southern Ocean Landfill into a 5.6-megawatt solar farm as part of a $40 million project by Pepco Energy Services. If constructed, it would provide enough electricity to power about 1,600 homes. However, the project has stalled because regulations in the Pinelands do not allow solar farms in the preservation area.

The issue is worrisome to some environmentalists, who note the state does not have a great track record of protecting ecologically sensitive lands. The preservation area accounts for about one-third of the more than one-million-acre Pinelands Preserve.

Emil DeVito, manager of science and stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, noted the bill makes no distinction between the preservation area, where only a limited number of land uses are permitted, and the rest of the Pinelands.

Whelan dismissed those concerns, saying the Pinelands Commission would have to approve each solar project in the region before it could move forward.

“In the preservation area, it may be too difficult an economic model to build a solar facility on a landfill or a quarry and then run the power lines into the facility,” Whelan said. “I think this is a responsible approach.”

Sen. Robert Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which has moved the bill into a position for a floor vote, agreed. “The Pinelands Commission is not easy,” he said. “They don’t allow too many things to happen there. You have some pretty good protections.”

Solar energy advocates, while supporting the bill as a great way to utilize fallow land, said nonetheless there are technical issues with building in such areas.

“It’s not the silver bullet some make it out to be. It is not the first choice for where you might want to build a solar farm,” said Tom Leyden, managing director of SunPower, one of the most active solar companies in the state. His company has developed a small solar facility on a landfill in Sarasota, Fla., Leyden said, but there are issues that can inflate a project’s cost.

The time it takes for ground to settle is one of the primary problems affecting recently capped dumps, and it has to be taken into account when building the solar facility, Leyden said. In addition, some landfills are not located near the power lines where they can be easily sited.

The Christie administration has yet to take a position on the bill, but during last year’s gubernatorial campaign the candidate proposed putting solar panels on more than 800 active and closed landfills. Others, too, are exploring the option, including the Hackensack Meadowland Development Commission, which has regulatory oversight on dumps in that region.

“In some places, it is easier to do it, because they own the land and are the main regulatory body,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which supports the bill.

“The idea of this bill is to get those landfills that are leaking into the environment capped,” Tittel said. “We can take something that is currently problem and turn it into a public benefit. If it is done right, there still will be some decent habitat around the landfill.”