Northampton moves ahead with plans for solar array systems at landfill, parking lots

Last modified: Wednesday, January 07, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — The plan to install a large solar array on the former landfill off Glendale Road is moving ahead two years after public pressure led the city to close the dump rather than expand it.

While details are still in the works, the city’s energy specialist said the idea calls for a third-party company to develop the estimated $16 million, 3.5-to-4-megawatt system on 15 acres of capped landfill. Such a system would produce about 45 percent of the city’s municipal energy use each year, valued at $650,000, though that doesn’t mean the city will see that kind of annual savings, said Christopher Mason, the city’s energy and sustainability officer.

In addition to the potential financial benefits a solar project at the landfill would provide, Mayor David J. Narkewicz said the city has taken significant steps in recent years to reduce its energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. A solar project would add to this legacy and further reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

“This would obviously be another major step forward,” said Narkewicz, noting that people have been eager to see the project move ahead for some time.

The plan did not take off immediately because there were concerns that the landfill needed time to settle after it closed in the spring of 2013. Mason said those worries no longer exist now that the landfill is no longer in operation and has been capped.

“We have become convinced that the settling is something that the PV industry can handle,” he said.

He said the city will soon seek proposals from a third-party company that would install and own the solar array, which at 4 megawatts could have roughly 20,000 panels. That request is scheduled to go out in the coming weeks, and may be paired with other requests to install solar array systems on several city-owned parking lots and at the Fire Department parking lot.

“We are going to be soliciting for a lot of PV on city-owned land,” Mason said.

Narkewicz said the city officially received a certificate to close the landfill late last year from the state Department of Environmental Protection, though any outside vendor seeking to install solar there would need to obtain a post-closure use permit from the state agency, with the city’s approval. If successful, the city could flip the switch on the photovoltaic array at the landfill as soon as this summer.

Reusing closed and capped landfills to generate electricity has become more popular in recent years and is being promoted by the state and supported by the DEP.

The state has increased incentives for construction of solar arrays at publicly owned sites such as landfills, parking lots and “brownfield” sites by raising the value of solar-renewable energy credits from these sites.

Easthampton installed a 2-megawatt array over its capped Oliver Street landfill in 2012, as has Greenfield, Holyoke and Springfield. Deerfield is currently evaluating three proposals for a solar farm over its former landfill. Amherst, meanwhile, hopes to bring a 4.75-megawatt solar project to the 53-acre former landfill on Belchertown Road, though that project has remained stalled by litigation nearly four years after it was proposed.

Mason said the city is using a $12,500 state grant to hire an experienced “owner-agent,” Beth Greenblatt of Beacon Integrated Solutions, to help it develop the request for proposals and negotiate potential agreements with an outside company. Greenblatt will also help the city determine whether it should bundle solar projects at the landfill, on city parking lots and at the Fire Department into one request for proposals or treat them as individual projects. Narkewicz said there might be some savings by grouping the projects together.

“We’re trying to take a very systematic and thoughtful approach to this,” Narkewicz said.

Mason said the solar array is pegged for the top of the former landfill where the land is the flattest. He said an early study completed for the city by the Smith College engineering students included using slopes on the landfill’s edges, but those slopes are likely to prove difficult for contractors to install solar panels on, he said.

Another 7 acres of unused land that had been designated for expansion is also not likely to be included in the solar project because that land would not qualify for tax credits needed to do the deal, Mason said. A third chunk of property the city acquired off Glendale Road to serve as a boundary had the landfill expanded is also not part of the plans at this point, Narkewicz said.

Like other communities, the third-party contractor that inks a deal with Northampton would pay for the construction of the system, own it and make money from generating electricity there. With the help of the owner-agent, the city could negotiate several ways to generate revenue in return for providing the land. Among the options are agreements by which the company sells electricity generated at the site to the city at a reduced rate, a lease to use the land, or a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT.

“The city is going to want a revenue stream,” Mason said. “How that is structured is part of the negotiations.”

Developing parking lots

In a separate initiative, the city is using a $10,000 state grant to hire an engineer to study whether photovoltaic solar arrays can be installed at most city-owned parking lots.

“We don’t know yet if any of our parking lots are feasible, but there’s a good chance some of them will work,” Mason said.

The city is eyeing eight parking lots as candidates for the canopy-style systems: at South Street, Union Station, Masonic Street, Strong Avenue, the James House lot, the Armory Street lot, atop the E.J. Gare parking garage, and on the upper floor of the police station. Other parking lots, such as the Roundhouse lot or schools, are not being considered at this time, Mason said.

Mason said the systems will be designed so the parking lots are still functional because the solar panels will be elevated above the parking lot, similar to the way solar array systems at farms enable the land to stay in production.

“These will be high enough so that people can park underneath them,” he said.

Chad Cain can be reached at


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