In 2009, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved Public Service Electric and Gas Co.’s (PSE&G) request for a large-scale solar program that the utility dubbed “Solar 4 All.” As its name suggests, the program is a grid-connected universal solar initiative that feeds directly into the power grid and is accessible to all PSE&G electric customers.
That first approval in 2009 allowed PSE&G to invest up to $515 million to build 80 MW of universal solar power in two 40 MW segments: “pole-attached solar,” where PSE&G installed individual solar units on utility poles in the utility’s electric service territory, and centralized solar, where PSE&G developed solar projects on PSE&G-owned and third-party-leased rooftops, parking lots, landfills and brownfields.
PSE&G built centralized solar installations on five Newark, N.J., public schools, on the parking lots and rooftops of PSE&G facilities, on land surrounding two PSE&G substations, and on warehouse roofs owned by third parties around the state, among other locations.
But perhaps most important, Solar 4 All initially identified and transformed four brownfields owned by PSE&G and one landfill that is owned by the state of New Jersey into solar farms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a brownfield as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant,” and a landfill as “a discrete area of land or excavation that receives household waste.”
Although the definitions may differ, both landfills and brownfields have two major features in common: Their opportunities for traditional redevelopment are greatly limited despite the fact that they may be remediated and properly closed, and their potential for solar development is enormous. PSE&G’s first four brownfield projects and one landfill project set the stage for work that would become the signature of the Solar 4 All effort for the next several years.
Early landfill/brownfield work
The four brownfield sites that PSE&G owned and developed into solar farms were all former manufactured gas plants that dated back to the turn of the 20th century. These sites, which are located in Trenton, Edison, Linden and Hackensack, N.J., were remediated through the years, but they were barren fields until the approval of the Solar 4 All program allowed PSE&G to transform them into solar farms. The Trenton Solar Farm, located in the state’s capital, was the first to go into service in September 2010. It generates 1.3 MW of electricity and converts nearly six acres of brownfield into usable space. The Trenton project was followed by the 2 MW Silver Lake Solar Farm in Edison, the 3.2 MW Linden Solar Farm and, finally, the 1.06 MW Hackensack Solar Farm.
PSE&G’s first landfill solar farm went into service in December 2011. The 12,506-panel, 3 MW Kearny Solar Farm was a joint effort between PSE&G; the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA), which manages the landfill; and SunDurance Energy, an Edison-based solar construction firm. PSE&G owns and operates the solar farm and leases the 13 acres of land that it is built on from the NJSEA.
When the initial 80 MW of Solar 4 All was completed at the end of 2012, there were more than 174,000 pole-attached solar units installed and 24 centralized solar projects in service. Of those 24 centralized projects, the five that were built on landfills and brownfields generated 10.56 MW and turned more than 40 acres of landfill and brownfield space green with solar power.
At the same time PSE&G was working to complete the initial 80 MW under Solar 4 All, the New Jersey Legislature was working to pass the Solar Act of 2012, which among other things, put a major emphasis on the use of New Jersey landfills and brownfields for solar development. Although the use of landfills and brownfields for this purpose and the resultant preservation of open space had been part of the New Jersey Energy Master Plan, the Solar Act of 2012 gave new emphasis to the effort.
PSE&G filed for an extension to Solar 4 All, and the BPU approved the request in May 2013, allowing the utility to invest up to $247 million more to install 42 MW of solar capacity on landfills and brownfields and 3 MW in solar pilot programs for storm hardening and grid resiliency.
Following this approval, PSE&G hired an environmental engineering firm, and together they embarked on the evaluation of more than 1,000 landfills in New Jersey. Shortly thereafter, PSE&G began construction on the Parklands Solar Farm, a 10.14 MW project that transformed 40 acres of landfill space in Bordentown, N.J., into a solar generation powerhouse by installing 33,402 solar panels. It went into service in December 2014.
The second project under the Solar 4 All Extension was the 11.18 MW Kinsley Solar Farm, which fills 32 acres of unused landfill space in Deptford, N.J., with 36,841 solar panels. It also went into service in December 2014.
The third project was the L&D Solar Farm, which converted more than 50 acres of landfill space spanning Eastampton, Lumberton and Mount Holly, N.J., into a 12.93 MW solar facility. It is the largest Solar 4 All project to date and went in service in late December 2015.
The fourth solar farm built as part of the Solar 4 All Extension was the ILR Solar Farm. This 7.75 MW solar farm consists of 23,834 solar panels on 21 acres of closed landfill in Edison. The ILR facility went into service in December 2016 and completes the 42 MW landfill/brownfield portion of the current Solar 4 All Extension program.
At the end of 2016, the Solar 4 All program had 52.58 MW of solar capacity built on nine landfill and brownfield sites. These projects fill more than 190 acres of landfill and brownfield space with 175,000 solar panels that can power about 8,500 homes annually.
The benefits, the challenges
The primary and most obvious benefit to repurposing remediated brownfields and properly closed landfills for solar development is that it reclaims and reuses these sites as viable solar resources. In a small, densely populated state like New Jersey, preserving open space by developing solar on landfills and brownfields is a major benefit.
Second, PSE&G has found that these landfill and brownfield solar projects are about 40% less expensive than typical residential net-metered solar projects because of the economies of scale that can be realized. Soft costs (e.g., customer/site acquisition, transaction fees, engineering and permits) associated with a large landfill/brownfield project are significantly less. For example, a 10 MW project has one set of contracts and permits. For comparison, building 10 MW of residential solar could mean a developer would need to negotiate 1,000 contracts with 1,000 homeowners and apply for 1,000 municipal permits at an average residential solar project of 10 kW.
The same is true for labor and construction mobilization costs. For a centralized 10 MW landfill/brownfield project, the construction phase might last 90 days because of the size of the workforce that can be hired and the fact that all construction equipment and supplies are in one place after initial setup. If a residential solar developer could build one 10 kW system per day – including on weekends, a very aggressive goal – it would take three years to build 10 MW of residential solar capacity. Large centralized solar projects on landfills and brownfields also allow utilities like PSE&G to bring purchasing power to bear that can’t be matched by the majority of residential solar installers. The last four landfill solar projects that PSE&G put in service averaged more than 33,000 solar panels each, in addition to enormous quantities of racking and wiring and other materials needed. The ability to purchase these items in such large quantities gives PSE&G and its contractors an ability to negotiate prices for material that are out of reach for many solar developers.
Third, Solar 4 All’s landfill and brownfield solar development has created thousands of jobs in New Jersey. For example, during the height of construction at the L&D Solar Farm, there were about 180 people working on-site in a range of jobs, including electricians, engineers, carpenters, heavy-equipment operators and laborers. This is a pattern that was duplicated at every project built as part of Solar 4 All.
There are also more localized benefits of landfill and brownfield solar development. For instance, in addition to building the Hackensack Solar Farm, PSE&G also improved a portion of the Hackensack pedestrian RiverWalk directly adjacent to the brownfield solar farm. The Hackensack project and other Solar 4 All projects have turned urban eyesores into more aesthetically pleasing parts of the community by including streetscaping around the perimeter of the site.
Although there are a number of benefits to landfill and brownfield solar development, there are also some challenges that are inherent when working on these types of properties.
The initial challenges are identifying landfills and brownfields that are suitable for solar development, negotiating a lease agreement with the site owner, and securing the needed local and state approvals and permits. Following the 2013 Solar 4 All Extension program approval, PSE&G worked with Weston Solution Inc., an environmental engineering firm, to identify every landfill and brownfield in the utility’s New Jersey electric service territory.
That list of more than 400 sites was culled to a smaller list of 35 sites. For landfill sites, which made up the bulk of the list, PSE&G required that they be deemed a “properly closed landfill” by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and for brownfield sites, it was required that the sites be properly remediated. Of the list of properly closed and/or remediated sites, PSE&G then looked for, among other things, locations that were large enough to accommodate a 1 MW or larger system, had suitable topography for solar development, and were located near electric distribution circuits that were both easily reached and had enough remaining capacity to handle the load that the solar farm would generate.
From that list of 35, the most suitable landfills were ranked, and PSE&G set out to identify site owners that may be interested in solar development. Eventually, PSE&G negotiated a lease agreement based on expected solar production at the specific sites with four landfill owners (Kinsley, Parklands, L&D and ILR). These sites were eventually developed to meet the 42 MW requirement of the program extension.
Once sites are identified and agreements negotiated, the next issue is obtaining local- and state-level approvals and permits. Although this process is part of almost any solar project, when building on landfills and brownfields, there can be a number of other matters that arise because of the sometimes complicated history of these sites.
The L&D Solar Farm is a prime example of a unique permitting situation. The project spanned three different municipalities, and this required municipal land use approval from three separate townships. Fortunately, recent amendments to the Municipal Land Use Law in New Jersey established that landfill solar facilities like the L&D Solar Farm are a permitted use within every municipality. This provides more certainty in the approval process at the planning board level as compared to the need to obtain a use variance from the zoning board.
The actual construction of a solar farm on a landfill or brownfield is similar to other solar projects in many ways, but building solar on a landfill or brownfield also offers some unique challenges. Oftentimes, these sites require significant grading in order to make the terrain suitable for solar construction. At the Kinsley Solar Farm and the Kearny Solar Farm, the entire footprint of both sites, 45 acres, was graded to make the land suitable for solar construction.
All of the landfills and brownfields that Solar 4 All has built on are properly closed and/or remediated and feature some form of environmental cap that cannot be penetrated with traditional solar racking. As a result, concrete ballast blocks are used as anchors for the racking system. PSE&G worked closely with the New Jersey DEP’s Division of Solid Waste to design solar array plans that would not penetrate the protective landfill cap or impede access to landfill monitoring wells and venting locations. For eight of the nine landfill and brownfield projects, these concrete ballast blocks were manufactured off-site and trucked in – at the Kinsley Solar Farm, there were more than 3,400 used. At the ninth site, the L&D Solar Farm, the ballasts were poured in place using large plastic tubs. In total, there were 4,602 concrete ballasts weighing two tons each poured on-site at L&D at the rate of 200 per day using a steady stream of more than 400 truckloads of concrete.
In November 2016, the New Jersey BPU approved a second extension to the Solar 4 All program that authorized PSE&G to invest up to $80 million over the next three years to build an additional 33 MW of solar farms exclusively on landfills and brownfields in PSE&G’s electric service territory, in keeping with New Jersey’s established public policy of targeting these types of properties for solar development. PSE&G expects that the 33 MW will be enough capacity for three or four additional solar farms. By 2020, Solar 4 All will have 158 MW in service, of which more than 85 MW will be built on landfills and brownfields.
Despite additional challenges, landfill and brownfield solar development has proven very beneficial to PSE&G and the Solar 4 All program, as a whole.
PSE&G has been able to turn landfills and brownfields green with solar power because New Jersey has a strong commitment to renewable energy and an aggressive renewable portfolio standard. Additionally, the New Jersey BPU has been very supportive of PSE&G’s overall efforts in solar development, as demonstrated by multiple extensions to Solar 4 All. The Solar Act of 2012 and the New Jersey Energy Master Plan, which both mandate that landfill and brownfield solar development be made a priority in New Jersey, have also made building on these sites possible. When these factors are coupled with the fact that New Jersey has an abundance of landfills and brownfields and that PSE&G’s electric distribution system is robust enough to accommodate large solar projects, it is easy to see why landfill and brownfield solar development became such a key part of Solar 4 All. And although PSE&G was fortunate to have a number of factors working in favor of Solar 4 All and landfill and brownfield solar development, they are not so unique or rare that other interested utilities around the country and the world could not work to replicate the success PSE&G has had in New Jersey.
PSE&G will begin work on the next Solar 4 All landfill solar farm this year, but beyond the current 33 MW that the program is approved to build, there is still enough suitable landfill and brownfield space in PSE&G’s electric service territory to build nearly 100 MW of additional solar capacity.
With PSE&G’s demonstrated expertise in landfill and brownfield solar development and the continued support of state policymakers, the Solar 4 All program looks forward to many more opportunities to transform landfills and brownfields across New Jersey into sources of pride and clean renewable energy.
Todd Hranicka is director of solar energy at PSE&G.