Mostly, capped landfills remind me of the mausoleums of a consumer society. For most of a century we dumped our solid waste onto these Mt Trashmores and mixed up a brew of concentrated toxins which seeped into the surrounding areas and often polluted (and still do) our water. So we learned to treat our waste as a resource, close the landfills, cap them, and leave them idle. We’re still very primitive about this, but progress is steady.
There’s not much you can do on a capped landfill because it’s essential that we not disturb the protective rubber liner that is usually only 12-18” below the grass that covers it.
But there are some uses. Most are relatively passive: cultivation of hay, green space, wildlife habitat, and biking/walking/running trails. Some are more active: golf courses, baseball fields, and soccer fields.
Perhaps the best (and becoming widespread) is covering the cap with solar panels. There’s poetry in this. The symbols of our wasteful practices – landfills – are becoming host properties for the promising creation of a society powered by renewables. Like parking lots, landfills are distressed properties that can now serve a valuable purpose.
The small town of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard capped its tiny landfill many years ago. Now it serves only as a transfer station. Residents drop their solid waste in bins and it is then transported to our Regional Refuse Station (don’t get me started about what happens after that – most of it could be composted as it is on Nantucket, but we haven’t reached that stage of semi-enlightenment yet).
On January 23rd a ribbon-cutting was held for the new solar system at the Aquinnah Landfill that will provide all the electrical power for the town municipal buildings. Below, SMC co-owner and foreman Pete Ives and solar installer Hunter Cottrell are installing the racking.
The project was another collaboration between Vineyard Power and South Mountain Company (SMC). SMC co-owner and energy division manager Rob Meyers describes the ceremony like this: “It was a cold, clear day, perfect for generating solar electricity, and perfect for a short but sweet dedication ceremony — we were freezing!! After an introduction from the Town Administrator, Adam Wilson, and Vineyard Power (VP) Board Chair Paul Pimentel spoke about how the project came to be, and reminded us all that this is but a stepping stone towards VPs goal of providing 50-70% of the power needs of Martha’s Vineyard with a combination of solar and off-shore wind projects, Town Selectman Jim Newman was given the honor of cutting the ribbon, and releasing us from the clutches of winter to enjoy a cup of hot coffee at town hall down the road. There were no lingerers!”
Rob goes on, “This is the seventh completed landfill solar project in Massachusetts. The project is local in every sense of the word. A town project developed by the local electric cooperative, funded by local investment, and designed and installed by local contractors and electricians. The innovative PPA/Lease model created by Vineyard Power enables town ownership of the system in as little as ten years; most such models have a 20 year term. Given that the system is comprised of the highest quality equipment available on the market – SunPower – this is a robust benefit to the town as they will likely have free electricity for 20 years or more after ownership is transferred.”
“Typically,” he continues, “fixed-tilt ground mounted PV structures are set as close to the ground as possible to reduce costs. One key difference in the design of this system is the use of a racking system with greater ground clearance. The goal is to assure easy site maintenance: just run the lawn mower under the panels. Because the high efficiency SunPower panels only need 50% of the area of standard solar panels to achieve the same output, less racking was required.”
And Derrill Bazzy, another SMC owner and the project manager, chimes in, “Another important concept of the system design was no fencing. The townspeople are proud of the installation and we felt they should be able to walk around and between the PV panels, touch them, connect with them, and experience them fully. This required a novel approach to protecting the wiring from being touched (electrical code requirement). We worked with our installation crew to keep all the exposed wiring (which is located on the underside of the solar modules) between two horizontal struts within the racking system, then we spanned those struts with a 2’ strip of metal fencing, creating an elegant detail at a fraction of the cost of fencing the perimeter of the array. Win-win all the way!”
Landfills are fragile. The permitting is complex and the site must be carefully protected during construction. It’s good to have one under our belt. We’re ready for more – bring ‘em on. Chilmark sounds good, and West Tisbury and Edgartown and . . . maybe Nantucket too!!