London solar farm built on landfill waste.

London solar farm built on landfill waste.

Turning Trash into Treasure: Solar Power on Landfill Sites

Solar Farm on Landfill

Landfill sites, typically seen as wastelands, may hold unexpected potential for renewable energy projects, such as solar farms. Matthew Popkin, an expert from the Rocky Mountain Institute, acknowledges that while closed landfills offer limited options for reuse, their prevalence in communities worldwide presents an opportunity to explore renewable energy solutions. The United Kingdom, in particular, has taken a step forward in this regard with the completion of a solar farm on a closed landfill site with the capacity to generate 58.8 megawatts of electricity, powering around 17,000 homes. However, the journey to harnessing solar power on disused trash heaps has not been without its challenges.

One of the key obstacles faced during the implementation of the solar farm project was the technical complexity of installing solar panels on landfill sites. To ensure no damage was done to the landfill sealing, the panels had to be mounted on concrete ballasted bases instead of being traditionally dug deep into the ground. Additionally, some installations required adjustable legs to account for ground movement as the underlying trash decomposes over time. These technical adaptations increased the project costs, with an estimate of £850,000 ($1.1 million) per megawatt of power produced, approximately 5% more than a solar farm on ordinary land. Depending on factors such as the condition of the landfill, freight costs, and material prices, this cost difference can reach up to 15%.

In addition to technical challenges, the solar farm project also faced inflationary pressures, a common hurdle for many renewable energy initiatives. However, due to a contract secured with BT Group Plc to sell all the energy generated during the first decade, the project was able to proceed without delays. As renewable energy projects continue to thrive, the oversupply of solar components from China has resulted in a drop in material prices and spot prices reaching record lows. This, coupled with the increasing viability of developing on wasteland, could pave the way for a new wave of projects in the UK. BloombergNEF predicts that the UK will install over two gigawatts of solar capacity in 2023, up from 1.2 gigawatts in 2022.

When siting large-scale solar farms, finding available land near major cities is often challenging. For example, North Wales is home to the UK’s largest solar park with a capacity of 72 megawatts, while a larger park is being constructed near Faversham in Kent, just over 50 miles from London. Additionally, remote renewable energy projects in the UK face constraints due to limited grid connections, with some projects waiting up to a decade for grid access. However, Ockendon, the landfill site chosen for the solar farm, was fortunate enough to come with a pre-existing grid connection offer, bypassing this issue.

Transmission, distribution, and proximity to electricity demand are crucial considerations when planning solar projects. According to Matthew Popkin, landfill solar projects can offer a win-win solution by repurposing these sites for future energy needs. In fact, when walking through the Ockendon solar farm, one might not even realize that they are standing on layers of decomposing garbage, as the solar panels and black plastic methane valves coexist harmoniously.

Eamonn Medley, director of business development at NTR Plc, the renewables investment manager behind the project, admits that building renewables on landfills presents financial challenges. However, he remains optimistic, stating, “It’s hard, but it can be done.” By exploring renewable energy opportunities in unexpected places like landfills, society can unlock the potential to transform trash into treasure and move closer to a sustainable future.

With Elina Anya Ganatra