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US landfills are becoming solar farms

Words by Smiley Team

Landfills have a tipping point. They might appear as bottomless voids where all our trash gets sent and forgotten about – but eventually, they’ll fill up and be capped off.

This leads to what’s called “brownfields.” Ironically, these areas are usually rolling hills of lush green grass but are named for the potential of the land – or lack thereof. Since these areas are on top of what is often toxic waste and refuse things struggle to grow and it would be unsafe to live on them. 

But a new push in the US is aiming to find a use for this previously unusable land, by turning the brownfields into solar farms known as “brightfields.” The project has already started making some headway. In 2021 alone, 21 landfill solar projects produced a combined 207 megawatts of energy, according to the World Resources Institute. This reflects a broader push towards clean energy in communities. 

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Places like Columbus, Ohio, and Houston, Texas are working to open more brightfields. The one in Houston will be over 240 acres, and both projects will generate about 50 megawatts of energy, powering around 5,000 homes a year. 

There’s massive potential for expansion as well. RMI, a clean energy non-profit, estimated that there are nearly 60 gigawatts of potential energy in brightfields. That’s enough energy to power the state of South Carolina. 

It’s not completely cut and dry though. The planning that goes into building a brightfield is a lot different than a standard solar farm. 

“There’s more due diligence, there’s more design and engineering, and people’s time that has to go into sufficiently planning this,” says Matthew Popkin, an urban transformation manager at RMI. “If you put a stake in the grass in a random field poorly, the dirt might suffer. If you put a stake in a landfill poorly, the community might suffer.”

But even with that, the projects remain enticing since the land can’t really be used for much else. 

“... when you start to look at municipally owned land that is in your control and that is able to host a large project, suddenly a brownfield or a closed landfill looks very attractive because it can’t be used for … housing, mixed-use apartments, or the next Walmart or Target superstore,” Popkin said.

Inspired to Act?

DONATE: Look at RMI. Their work helps plan out clean energy projects that would otherwise be impossible. 

SUPPORT: Look at ways for you to cut back on your own waste. Even though this is a project for utilizing unusable land we wouldn’t need these projects without so much waste.


This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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