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Windham Solid Waste Management District Solar Array © American Aerial Scenes, LLC

Does Landfill Solar Help Save Farms?

Farm and Energy Initiative students visited the Windham Solid Waste Management District to learn about landfill-sited solar energy.

By Genevieve Byrne August 21, 2020

What’s the relationship between landfill-sited solar energy and farms?

To find out, Farm and Energy Initiative students visited the Windham Solid Waste Management District to learn about the 5 megawatt AC solar array sited on the closed and capped landfill in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Landfills are on a list of “preferred sites” for solar development in Vermont. To steer renewable energy development away from farms and other undeveloped greenfields, Vermont offers a per-kilowatt-hour rate incentive or “adder” in its net-metering program for smaller projects and those located on less desirable land. Larger projects and those sited on greenfields risk losing quite a lot of money over the long term through a per-kilowatt-hour rate subtractor. While the rate adders given to preferred projects last for ten years, the rate subtractors never go away. 

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Bob Spencer tells students about the solar array.
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Students inspect the electric transformer.
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Concrete "shoes" support the solar array.

When incentives are used to support the siting of renewable energy on landfills and other preferred sites, it helps to protect agricultural land from energy development. The Public Utility Commission added the preferred siting incentive to the net-metering rules in 2017, after noticing that solar arrays were disproportionately sited on undeveloped fields, which are often flat, sunny, and offer lower construction costs. 

The rate incentive for preferred projects helps to balance the additional expense of construction on previously developed land. Building a solar array on a landfill can be tricky. Trucks can’t be driven on the landfill cap, so these projects generally require more labor. The 5-megawatt project in Brattleboro spans seventeen acres and consists of nearly 16,000 individual solar panels. Because the infrastructure supporting the array cannot pierce the landfill cap, the panel supports are held by over 3,000 concrete “shoes” standing on the ground surface that distribute weight evenly. 

The Brattleboro array is larger than projects that can take advantage of the rate-adder within the net-metering program, which includes arrays up to 500 kw in capacity. However, the Brattleboro installation still manages to benefit an “array” of community members. The District brings in over $100,000 in lease payments annually, and the renewable energy credits are shared by the District and nine other local schools and institutions, all of whom save money on their electric bills by using solar energy.