Solar panels at Merino Mill
Idle for nearly a half-century, the overgrown 155 acres of city-owned property north of uptown, in an industrial area off Statesville Road and Interstate 85, seems ripe for development.
Whiffs of garbage give away its past. The site is a landfill built and closed (in 1970) before standards existed to protect groundwater, limit the types of waste buried there or even cover it all with dirt.
There are 675 such landfills across North Carolina – eight in Mecklenburg County alone – and only in recent years has the state begun cleaning them up. As landfill owners like Charlotte search for new uses, the state’s solar industry may have part of the answer.
In November, Charlotte City Council approved a lease of 22 acres of the Statesville Road landfill to a company that wants to build a small solar farm. The Kannapolis company that leased the land hopes to create a niche in planting solar panels on old dumps.
Gaston County also has plans to make solar energy from an old landfill. The county has leased about 25 acres of its more recently closed, 167-acre Auten Road landfill to Cypress Creek Renewables for a planned 4.7 megawatt solar farm.
Prompted by a redevelopment plan between uptown and UNC Charlotte, called the Applied Innovation Corridor, Charlotte is eager to reuse the rest of the Statesville Road tract.
“The idea from the get-go was, how do we bring somebody in who could do something on top of a landfill?” said Rob Phocas, the city’s energy and sustainability manager. “It’s been a long process. (Solar) fits in really well with our vision for bringing that property back into play, but is something that is not really very impactful to the site.”
What other uses are possible at the Statesville Road landfill depends largely on the extent of contamination found during research that could take a decade. It’s not unusual to find polluted groundwater and streams, toxic metals in soil and cancer-causing asbestos at such sites.
“Whatever was in that area, you’re going to find in that landfill,” said Cheryl Marks, who leads the state program to clean up old landfills. “Some sites are pumping (potentially hazardous) landfill gas, methane and volatile organic compounds. Some have soil cover, some don’t. Some are stacked so high that the slopes are no longer stable.”
The program, created in 2009, runs on the $8 million a year it gets from a share of a statewide $2-a-ton waste tax.
The cleanups are intended to address environmental risks that can’t be reduced by land use restrictions. If the groundwater under a landfill is contaminated, for instance, the state may install water filters for well owners rather than cleaning the groundwater itself, a process that can take decades and cost millions of dollars.
“It’s an opportunity to restore land and make it usable, and also protects the public,” Marks said. “There’s nothing worse than buying a piece of property thinking it’s pristine and finding out it’s not.”
About 80 old landfills statewide have been cleaned up or work is underway. One of them is a Mecklenburg County-owned landfill, Double Oaks.
At the outset, Marks said, Double Oaks was “a pretty sad piece of property.” Now, after a layer of clean soil and grading of slopes that cost $2.1 million, it’s a play area for a nearby subdivision.
The Statesville Road landfill is within an area the city began studying in 2014 as an “innovation corridor” to nurture jobs in cutting-edge industries that would also stimulate investments in housing and commercial development.
“We’ve been looking optimistically for some sustainable uses out there for years,” said David Wolfe, the city’s environmental services manager. “It’s in that (innovation corridor) geography and a big property. We’re excited about the potential for solar and would love to find other positive uses for that property.”
The company that leased part of the Statesville Road landfill, Momentum Solar LLC, will spend a year on further study of the site’s suitability for solar energy.
Permitting and other details could add years more to it development, but Momentum believes the site could support a 2- or 3- megawatt system. That output would be enough to supply 360 to 540 homes for a year.
Because virgin ground for solar farms is becoming scarce – North Carolina is the second-leading solar state – Momentum and its consultants analyzed the state’s inventory of old landfills. The list shrank to a few dozen candidate sites after those with problems, such as sites in floodplains or those far from utility substations, were eliminated.
The Statesville Road landfill topped the most desirable sites. Momentum says it has four more landfill solar projects in some stage stage of development and has identified about 10 other landfills as candidates.
“We love the concept because it’s a great use of that land,” said contractor Rich Deming of Power Resource Group. “You’re not displacing farmland or development land, and it’s a huge win for these municipalities, which get a (lease) check.”