'Solar garden' could sprout atop former Norwich landfill

Norwich - For years, the Rogers Road landfill has been a liability to the city, which has borne the cost of capping the dump area, monitoring nearby groundwater for contamination and cleaning it up.

Now that large, capped landfill area could bring the city new revenue and provide another source of clean energy for Norwich Public Utilities customers.

The Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative, NPU officials and principals from Brightfields Development LLC will give a presentation at 7 p.m. Monday to the Norwich City Council on a plan to build a $10 million, 3-megawatt "solar garden" at the old landfill.

NPU General Manager John Bilda said plans are preliminary. The city would have to reach a lease agreement with Brightfields to use the city-owned landfill property - bringing new revenue to the city - and CMEEC would purchase the power from the company and sell it as part of its power supply through circuits provided by NPU.

"There's no real downside for Norwich," Bilda said, "if we can get a big piece of Norwich's power at a fixed, attractive rate with zero impact on the environment. Better yet, we'd be taking a brownfields site and putting it to good use."

John Hanselman, managing principal at Brightfields, said the Wellesley, Mass., company has about 140 megawatts of solar energy projects under development, primarily along the East Coast from Vermont to Puerto Rico. Most of the projects are on so-called brownfields contaminated sites, with most of those being landfills, "which have little or no other value to the community," Hanselman said.

A 3-megawatt solar garden at the former municipal landfill in Scituate, Mass., is completed, and Brightfields just started construction on a 3.7-megawatt project in Needham, Mass.

"We're very excited to do that as a business model," he said.

The goal is to have the solar power produced by Brightfields cost the same as the power sold by CMEEC in general, with no added cost to NPU's customers, Bilda said.

"It's the same with hydropower," Bilda said. "All NPU customers would have the same price, and we'd be able to say, '6 percent of your power comes from solar,' same as 6 percent is from hydro."

According to figures provided by NPU, the 3 megawatts of generation proposed by the solar project would be enough to power 370 households for one year.

Bilda said it's difficult to estimate a timeline for the project, with lease agreements and permits needed, but once approved, the project could be completed within eight to 12 months.

Brightfields officials said the company works with partner firm Renova Partners, a brownfields investment and development firm, to analyze sites for the solar projects to ensure that the project would not cause an environmental hazard. The project must be designed so that it doesn't penetrate the landfill cap and doesn't create a new stormwater path that could cause longterm erosion.

Hanselman said some of the preliminary work at the Rogers Road site has been done.

NPU also is considering a similar project at the former Hollyhock Island city dump, but that project would have to wait until after the pending major upgrade to the adjacent city sewer plant is completed.

Groton Utilities General Manager Len Mediavilla said CMEEC and Brightfields also are looking at two sites in the Groton Utilities and Bozrah Light & Power franchise areas for solar gardens. He said he could not identify the sites yet but said one would generate 3 megawatts and the other 4 megawatts.

Mediavilla said when the projects are ready, Groton Utilities would follow the same procedure as NPU, starting with a presentation to the host town's governing body for possible lease arrangements.

Groton Utilities also is participating in a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection contest to seek homeowners interested in installing solar panels on their homes. Sixteen homeowners in the Bozrah Light & Power franchise area - Bozrah and part of Lebanon - have agreed to participating, receiving state grants to cover 30 percent of the installation cost. The homeowners also would qualify for federal income tax credits on the cost. BL&P will purchase the excess electricity not needed to power those homes.

Bilda said the Norwich solar garden proposal would not prevent Norwich homeowners from installing solar panels on the roofs of their houses on their own. NPU has an interim policy in place that allows homeowners to install solar panels to generate the estimated amount of electricity needed for just that house.

On low-usage days, NPU would purchase the excess power at the average so-called avoided cost rate - the amount NPU would save from getting the power elsewhere.

"If your house is oriented in the right way, and you have the financial ability to do it, those options still exist," Bilda said, "but we certainly feel this (the solar garden) is more cost-effective."

c.bessette@theday.com

If you go

Who: Norwich City Council
What: Presentation on proposed 3-megawatt solar garden project at former Rogers Road landfill
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Council Chambers, Norwich City Hall

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