The Future of Landfills: Solar Farms could increase the nation’s energy capacity

Did you know: Landfills are becoming prime real estate for solar farms, and the nonprofit RMI believes the U.S. could increase the nation’s solar energy capacity by 63 gigawatts, or approximately 60%, simply by building solar farms on landfills.

Solar firms are building these landfill solar farms all over the country, and while they present a bigger engineering and economic challenge than building one on flat ground, the appeal of refurbishing capped landfills and brownfields from their barren state into a new service for the community is deeply appealing.

Of course, it isn’t the easiest thing to build a solar farm on a landfill. Click here to learn why.

And scroll down for insights from a recent report to learn more about the potential of this opportunity! 

Insights from the RMI ReportAccording to the US Environmental Protection Agency RE-Powering Tracking Matrix, almost half of all renewable energy projects on brownfields—also known as brightfields—over the past 10 years were installed on closed landfills. Solar and landfills are a natural combination for many communities looking to accelerate local renewable energy development. Landfills typically have good sun exposure—due to a lack of vegetation—and limited other redevelopment opportunities, making solar one of the few ways to
put the land to productive use. Moreover, reinvesting in closed landfill sites can help revitalize the local, often lower-income, host communities. Landfill solar is also highly scalable, as there are thousands of active landfills in the United States—and many thousands more closed and inactive landfills.

Yet, despite these benefits and opportunities, landfill solar is neither common practice nor common across the renewable energy industry. This report highlights our analysis of the status of landfill solar presently and the technical potential of what is possible if scaled across the United States. Our key findings include:

  • Landfill solar development has been geographically concentrated: Eighty-six percent of all utility-scale (1 megawatt [MW] or greater) landfill solar projects developed through 2019 in the United States are in two regions: New England and the Mid-Atlantic. In fact, four states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York—outshine all others and host 73% of all utility-scale landfill solar projects developed through 2019.
  • The technical potential of landfill solar is significant: Closed landfills could host an estimated 63 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity in the near future. To date, just 500 MW have been installed on landfills in the United States. This 63 GW would be equivalent to 70% of all the solar capacity installed in the United States through 2020 (89 GW) and could produce 83 terawatt-hours (TWh) annually— enough to power 7.8 million American homes or the entire state of South Carolina.
  • The quality and availability of data matters for understanding deeper technical potential: Limitations of state data, specifically regarding site acreage, closure status, and closure year, hinder a more complete understanding of technical potential across the country. The data that states maintain is key to informing future policies, incentives, and programs to encourage landfill solar.
  • States and municipalities are largely in control of their own fate to drive landfill solar deployment: Trends in both the number of projects deployed and project scale indicate that the landfill solar industry is nowhere close to reaching full maturity. These trends also suggest that the deployment of landfill solar and the size of each project (plus the resulting clean electricity and jobs) are predominantly within the control of individual states and local governments.

This report concludes by highlighting how states and local governments can leapfrog to the latest policies, incentives, and best practices to encourage solar on brownfields and landfills. It includes lessons learned from governments that have piloted and refined their policies, incentive structures, and best practices over the past decade. Our findings, analysis, and research should offer clarity to elected officials, policymakers, planners, developers, and communities on how landfill solar can be part of broader clean energy and land-use strategy to achieve ambitious community-wide sustainability and environmental justice goals.

Click here to read more about it.

About RMI: RMI is an independent nonprofit founded in 1982 that transforms global energy systems through market-driven solutions to align with a 1.5°C future and secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all. We work in the world’s most critical geographies and engage businesses, policymakers, communities, and NGOs to identify and scale energy system interventions that will cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent by 2030. RMI has offices in Basalt and Boulder, Colorado; New York City; Oakland, California; Washington, D.C.; and Beijing.