Newly green, city reaches for the sun

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / July 21, 2011

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Even as Woburn this week earned state designation as a green community, the city is pursuing a plan to locate a solar farm at its former landfill.

The city would lease the land to a developer to build and operate the solar facility on the approximately 50-acre Merrimack Street site, which includes the 39-acre former landfill, 6 to 7 acres of clean, usable land, and several acres of wetlands.

As a first step, the City Council is considering creating an overlay solar district covering the landfill area, allowing ground-mounted solar panels to be installed at the site.

Mayor Scott D. Galvin said locating a solar facility on the old landfill could generate economic benefits to the city, including income from the lease and the chance to purchase low-cost power.

“It’s something that seems to be the wave of the future. Renewable energy is definitely something that the city, state, and country have to work harder to develop,’’ he said. “Gas prices keep going up, oil prices keep going up. Alternative energy is something that can help alleviate the dependence on fossil fuels.’’

Woburn’s interest in clean energy also is reflected in the green community designation it received by the state Department of Energy Resources, a distinction cities and towns earn by undertaking initiatives to become more energy-efficient and expand their use of renewable energy.

With the designation, Woburn is eligible to apply for a share of an upcoming round of $231,000 in state funds to carry out energy projects, according to city purchasing agent Sarah A. Stanton. She said the city plans to submit an application by the Aug. 11 deadline and is optimistic about securing funds.

Should it move forward with development of a solar farm, as a green community the city would be eligible to apply for additional state grant money, Stanton said.

The Merrimack Street site was used as a municipal landfill from 1966 until it ceased operation in 1985. It underwent capping and closure between 1999 and 2006. The site has a 70-foot high elevation, with steep side slopes and a relatively flat top of about 10 acres, according to the city.

The decision to seek a solar development at the site was spurred by response to an invitation the city issued last year to prospective users of the landfill area. Of 12 groups submitting plans, 10 proposed solar projects, Stanton said.

Because of the strict limits state regulations place on reusing a capped landfill site, and because of other constraints relating to the size and shape of the site, energy generation is one of the few uses that would be feasible on the property, Stanton said. She said a wind facility was ruled out because there is not adequate wind at that location.

Should the council approve creating the solar district, Stanton said the city would issue a formal request for proposals from firms interested in developing a facility.

“I don’t think we will have any problem generating interest,’’ Stanton said. “I probably get a call from a solar company about that site at least once a week.’’

Although the proposed ordinance would allow solar facilities by right, it would still require any project calling for 250 kilowatts or more to undergo site plan review by the City Council, which would involve a public hearing.

The plan for a solar farm has the support of Ward 6 Alderman Michael L. Raymond, whose district includes the landfill area. Raymond and Ward 2 Alderman Richard F. Gately Jr. cosponsored the zoning proposal now before the council, which was developed by Galvin’s administration.

Raymond, who planned to make an initial presentation of the solar district proposal at the council’s meeting Tuesday, said that the landfill area “is neglected right now.

“There should be some use of the land. . . . I feel that a solar farm is the best long-term use of the property.’’

In addition to the economic benefits to the city, Raymond said he envisions a solar farm as an educational resource, saying that students from local schools could be brought to the site to see how a renewable energy facility is built and operated.

“I think it’s the right thing to do. It would be a great legacy for our grandchildren.’’

Raymond attended a workshop that the state Department of Energy Resources sponsored for municipalities last year on the development of renewable energy facilities on closed landfills. He said he was inspired to hear about a project in PennsaukenTownship, N.J.

He said he also learned from state officials that there are other Massachusetts communities working to convert landfills to renewable energy use.

Raymond noted that the idea of a solar project at the Woburn landfill dates back at least to 2004. But he said the strong support the idea is now receiving, including from the mayor, aldermen, and other city officials, gives it new momentum, adding that neighbors have also expressed support for the plan.