Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Turning wasteland to energy: New Hanover County plans solar farm in landfill

New Hanover County is planning to create a new solar farm in the county landfill. (Courtesy Joe Suleyman)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A solar farm capable of generating power for up to 2,000 homes in the county is in the initial stages of development.

READ MORE: NHC explores converting landfill waste to renewable energy, netting $1M to county annually

New Hanover County’s recycling and waste management director, Joe Suleyman, said he first thought of the idea to bring one to the landfill about a year ago and brought it to assistant county manager Jessica Loeper in the last three months. 

“I just ran it by her to see if I got that ‘You lost your mind’ look — but I didn’t,” he told Port City Daily Monday. “She was very excited about it. And that was all I needed to start moving forward.”

The solar farm — the first owned by New Hanover though Duke Energy also has one in the county off Highway 421 — would connect to existing utilities near the site to add available power to the grid, rather than connect to a specific customer or location. It is planned to take up just under 3 acres of New Hanover County’s 723-acre landfill. 

There are different means of financing the project, estimated to be between $3 and $5 million, Suleyman said — a mix of county funds, low-interest loans from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, and federal tax credits. The agreement with the yet-to-be-determined developer could provide an investment in exchange for a percentage of the power sold.

Suleyman said it was too early to know precisely how proceeds from energy sold by the farm would be allocated. Duke Energy, which owns the grid, would sell the energy; Suleyman said they might also chip in to fund the solar infrastructure. A percentage of proceeds would then go to the developer and another may go to the county.

But the objective isn’t to make the county money, per se, Suleyman added: “We’re doing it because we want to walk the walk, you know, reduce our carbon footprint. We want to have sustainable energy sources out there.”

The developer would lease county land at the landfill and own the solar infrastructure for about 20 years until the developer’s investment terms are paid. Afterward, the county would own the solar farm.

Sueyman anticipates the amount the county gains from the solar farm would be significantly less than the roughly $1 million annual proceeds staff estimates to net from another recent renewable project to convert methane outputs into natural gas. The county signed a contract with Archaea Energy to create a natural gas facility — about a quarter mile away from the proposed solar site — in April 2023. Suleyman said the project is on track to wrap by April 2025, although permitting with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality might delay the completion date a few months.

The county’s farm will generate a minimum of 500 kilowatts and a maximum of two megawatts of power. Suleyman estimates it will be able to provide electricity for a minimum of 500 homes to a maximum of 2,000.

“The generic rule of thumb is that one megawatt is roughly 1,000 homes,” he told PCD, however some homes use less electricity than others, so the number could fluctuate. 

Suleyman viewed the landfill as an ideal location because there are limitations to the types of developments — such as apartment complexes or shopping malls — allowed to be built on former waste sites.

“That was the motivation for it, just take some space that has very limited uses and hook it up to the grid and start making some power,” Suleyman said.

While using landfills for solar farms isn’t common, it’s not totally unique either. Suleyman pointed to the waste company Republic Services, which in 2018 completed a 13 megawatt solar project at the South Brunswick Landfill Superfund site in New Jersey.

He noted the county’s landfill is nearing the end of its life cycle — when it exceeds its designed and permitted capacity. In May, the county determined the landfill has 28 years left, after which it must go into a 30-year post-closure process to monitor wastewater and natural gas generation. 

At the end of the post-closure process, the county must demonstrate the landfill’s status to the state. It is then eligible to transition to alternative uses, such as green space; in 60 years, the county plans to turn it into a nature park.

The proposed site for the solar farm was formerly an asbestos monofill — which refers to a landfill used exclusively for one type of waste. The county stopped accepting the material five years ago and has since fully stabilized the land.

The county and CDM Smith — who is preparing the solar farm’s preliminary designs — have had discussions including specifications to disallow excavations at the former asbestos site. Suleyman said this is because excavation can cause asbestos-contaminated dust to rise to the surface; he said a concrete buffer will be placed on the soil to separate it from the panels for safety.

The county held a meeting with CDM Smith on Monday, Jan. 22, to discuss details of the project. If the proposed site didn’t provide enough space for the photovoltaic panels, the developer could use roofs of the county-owned reverse osmosis wastewater treatment plant and the compost facility, both of which are in close proximity off Highway 421. 

Suleyman noted total project costs would depend on panel sourcing and corporate return on investment targets. CDM Smith’s contract is $47,000; $30,310 is allocated to preliminary design and creating the request for proposal to find a contractor and $16,690 is budgeted for the bidding process. 

CDM Smith’s design will include up to six electrical drawings showing the proper connection point for the system, initial utility coordination and utility requirements. The company also will apply helioscope software — used for analysis and simulation of solar systems — to determine appropriate size for the project.

Suleyman said installation would take around a year or longer, depending on the contractor and where solar panels are sourced. First a contractor has to be selected, which the county hopes to find by June 30, 2024. 

The development would align with the county’s FY 2024-2028 strategic plan, which calls to reduce carbon footprint and utilize innovative energy solutions. According to Suleyman, the county is also considering certain buildings to augment with solar panels, including the new government center, but did not know specifics. 

PCD reached out to the county to ask if any other renewable energy projects are currently in progress; after press, chief facilities officer Sara Warmuth shared other efforts to reduce the county’s carbon footprint. They include:

  • NHC is in the planning stages to implement solar panels over the rooftop terrace on the building being constructed as part of Project Grace. 
  • The county utilizes a handful of solar panels at the maintenance complex located off Division Drive. 
  • The county has two green roofs at the 320 Chestnut building and Health and Human Services building, although they are not energy producing.
  • NHC purchased electric vehicles for county use and is installing needed infrastructure to support these vehicles.

Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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