When developing solar projects on landfills or brownfields, it could be easy to assume that the usual environmental considerations don’t apply. After all, these sites are already disturbed, so what’s the harm in adding solar systems? 

However, as instructor Lucia Woo from LaBella Associates explains in the free Solar Development on Brownfields and Landfills course, the permitting process for these projects is more complex than many people realize. From wetland delineations to protected species assessments, there are a host of ecological factors that need to be carefully evaluated, even on previously contaminated lands. On top of that, developers still need to navigate the typical zoning laws, coordinate with state and regional authorities, and work closely with local utilities on interconnection throughout the process. 

While solar development on landfills and brownfields can be a great way to repurpose disturbed sites, it’s crucial to approach these projects with a full understanding of the unique permitting challenges they entail. Tune into this video clip to hear an overview of some of those permitting requirements and enroll in the free course to learn more about Solar Development on Brownfields and Landfills from the expert team at LaBella Associates.

So when it comes to permitting, people think, “hey, especially if we’re redeveloping a landfill, that’s raised land for renewable energy projects, no need to do a wetland delineation.” I just wanted to bring that up first and foremost. Yes. You still need to do a wetland delineation. For even landfill solar projects, because it is important to identify if there are any water features.

It’s important to just to confirm the absence of it as it is to confirm the presence. If they are present, it’s important to differentiate – are they natural versus manmade? So for some of the projects that we have worked on in the past, we have delineated wetlands on top of the cap, because it was not being maintained properly.

So the picture to the left is actually a wetland that you see on a landfill cap. That would be considered a natural feature, because it has been created over time. It’s also just as important to identify all of the man made features, such as storm water drainage, such as swales, to at least clear them with regulatory agencies, like US Army Corps, and get their buy-in that yes, these are man made. These are not wetlands. These are non-natural streams. These can be disturbed, if needed, during the construction of a solar array.  

What’s also a little unexpected is these landfills, especially if they have proper  vegetation coverage, they can serve as a suitable habitat for protected species. For example, if there is suitable grassland habitat, you can expect to find protected grassland birds, like the Northern Harrier or short-eared owl. 

It would be important to clear them as those not being at the site or perform a survey to confirm that or to just perform our us habitat suitability assessment, just to convey to the regulatory agencies that those grassland birds will not be impacted. In this picture, you can see such grassland habitat, but if you look off into the distance, you can also see that this landfill site is surrounded by trees. 

If you are planning to cut trees to avoid any shading concerns, you also need to screen the site for any protected bats and be mindful of any tree clearing window restrictions that may be imposed on the project during construction. 

Like I mentioned earlier, if there are some water bodies that are found either on the landfill or in the immediate vicinity, there are other wildlife that we should be concerned about that could utilize those water bodies as habitats, such as the Blanding’s turtle. 

It is still important to screen these contaminated, formerly industrial sites for protected wildlife, because even if they have been disturbed in the past, they can still serve as suitable habitat for some protected species. 

Aside from the ecological concerns, such as wetlands and wildlife, there are other significant permitting tasks associated with these landfill and brownfield solar projects. One of which is zoning. It is quite possible that the municipality that you’re working in may not currently permit any renewable energy projects as it is currently, so you may have to rezone or request a zoning variance for the projects, and it will be also important to coordinate with the state and the regional authorities to make sure that a change in brownfield use or the solid waste facility permits have been appropriately modified along with post closure care plan for landfills, as well as site management plans for brownfields have been updated to account for the solar array or another renewable energy project that may be now cited within those contaminant lands.  

Other permitting considerations to account for are make sure that you still, even though it’s disturbed, clear the project with regulatory agencies, such as the State Historic Preservation Office and the Federal Aviation Administration, and it’s also important to discuss the decommissioning as part of permitting with the municipalities, as well as interconnection approvals with the local utility.