Landfills examined for energy farm use

By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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Nine area communities are exploring whether they can turn landfills into alternative energy farms.

The project, which is being coordinated by the Merrimac Valley Planning Commission, taps two emerging trends: reusing landfills and brownfields as renewable energy sites, and taking a regional approach to green energy initiatives.

The commission this month hired a consultant to review 11 sites in nine communities to determine their suitability for solar arrays and wind turbines. Three sites are being considered in Amesbury and one each in Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Haverhill, Newbury, Rowley, Salisbury, and West Newbury.

Should the Beverly-based consultant Meridian Associates find some of the sites are suitable, the commission may bundle the projects together to attract a developer.

The regional approach makes sense beyond the benefits of group purchasing, said Dennis DiZoglio, executive director of the planning commission, by providing the technical knowledge lacking in many communities. “So, why not learn from each other and share expertise?’’

The state has encouraged the development of solar and wind farms on landfills, where regulations limit future uses.

“It’s a great reuse,’’ said Mark Sylvia, director of the Green Communities Division of the Department of Energy Resources. “This is a great opportunity for a community to reuse a site that otherwise they probably couldn’t reuse, and at the same time generate clean, renewable power.’’

Along with the Department of Environmental Protection, the division has run two workshops on the subject in the past 18 months, and both have been oversubscribed with attendees.

Sylvia estimated that his office has interacted with close to 30 cities and towns on the possibilities, and several have projects in the pipeline. Greenfield recently received the first permit in the state for a solar farm at a landfill.

This is the planning commission’s second regional green energy initiative this fall. Late last month, it selected the energy services company Ameresco Inc. of Framingham to make upgrades to public buildings in nine communities and two regional school districts: Amesbury, Lawrence, Georgetown, Haverhill, Methuen, Merrimac, Newburyport, North Andover, Boxford, the Pentucket Regional School District, and Greater Lawrence Technical School.

DiZoglio said the new focus came from discussions among members of the commission’s Mayors and Managers Coalition, which includes mayors from Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, Newburyport, and Amesbury, and town managers from Salisbury, Andover, and North Andover. The group was formed to identify common challenges that might have a regional solution, and last year created the Merrimack Valley Energy Management Program, which offers technical assistance to help communities develop strategies and programs.

“The coalition set the agenda,’’ DiZoglio said. “These are the things they wanted us to move forward on.’’

The programs can benefit communities financially without a lot of upfront costs. A renewable energy provider may lease landfills for running a solar farm, or sign an agreement to make payments based on future energy sales. Upgrades made to public buildings by an energy services company are paid for by future energy savings.

“When you get to the bottom line, it’s about reducing cost,’’ DiZoglio said.

While the profits may not provide a windfall, financial benefits for cities and towns can add up. In a conversation about an alternative energy program he once had with a local selectman, Rick Waitt, a principal with Meridian Associates, recalled saying: “Put a solar array on one of your school roofs, and you might get a couple of hundred dollars a month from the developer, not a lot of money. But do it in every single building that a municipality owns, and now you’re looking at somebody’s job that you’re saving.’’

The program could serve as a model for other regional planning councils, said Sam Cleaves, a senior regional planner for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which has 101 member communities in Massachusetts. Many municipalities have undertaken renewable energy projects in the area, noted Cleaves, whose council recently helped Revere win a $485,500 Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant from the Department of Energy to help pay for a new roof at an elementary school that will include a solar array.

Cleaves expects the council — which conducted a wind-energy study of 10 coastal towns from Ipswich to Lynn in 2005 — to begin offering a similar group approach to energy services within the next few months. The council is considering offering a program to research potential sites for solar and wind projects, as well as providing a staffer to provide assistance to individual municipalities.

“A number of communities don’t have the staff to do these projects, and we can fill the gap for that,’’ Cleaves said.