NREL research into potential for solar panels to be installed atop landfills

According to the NREL, America’s "eyesores" are becoming the hot places to install renewable energy for electric power generation. The land, it says, is cheap, often abandoned, close to such necessary infrastructure as power lines and roads, is often properly zoned, and no other developers are rushing to erect anything on them.

"The big driver is using land that otherwise couldn’t be used," said James Salasovich, an NREL engineer who has evaluated so-called landfill "brownfields" in Puerto Rico and Wisconsin."Google Earth will tell us the area of the landfill, but to get a good idea of where the hills and shading obstacles are, you really have to visit the site."

Mr. Salasovich and other traveling NREL engineers start with a device called a SunEye that has a fish-eye lens to take a photo of the sky above the landfill. "We point this thing south and take a photo," he said. "It puts out a spherical graph and shows you where the shade will be by what time of day and what time of year." An algorithm built into the SunEye can detect differences between, say, the sky and a tree, reports NREL.

Potential sites are culled from the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of Superfund and Brownfield sites – and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) sites. In some cases, the renewable energy apparatus going up is powering the ongoing clean-up efforts at the sites.

In other cases, the wind turbine, solar array or hydropower is bringing power to nearby schools, senior centers, offices and cities. That is most feasible, continues NREL, if the site is close enough to transmission wires to tie into the grid. There are some 11,000 sites in the United States with some past or current environmental contamination problems that may hold potential for renewable energy, said Gail Mosey, senior energy analyst in NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center. It is a great opportunity to reuse these lands for power generation – with no help from fossil fuels, she said.

Some sites, particularly Superfund sites, are so contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals that the earth ought not be disturbed, Ms. Mosey said. "But there are a lot of others that can endure a slight intrusion. There are workable solutions for installing renewable energy on the surface or outside the contaminated area."

Solar arrays can fit comfortably atop the two feet of dirt and liner that typically top a condemned landfill, for example.