solar energy

A Luminous Future? Old landfill may harvest energy of the sun

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Courtesy of the Mountain Times

by Scott Nicholson


A bright future could soon be sitting over decades of buried trash.
Watauga Solar LLC, a locally based company, is investigating the development of a solar-energy plant at the former landfill in Boone, which is owned by Watauga County and was closed and capped in the early 1990s.

The county issued a request for qualifications on the project, receiving two proposals and ultimately choosing Watauga Solar because of its local connections and potential partnerships. The county is negotiating a one-year lease with the company, which will give Watauga Solar time to investigate the feasibility of the energy project.

"The commissioners directed that we negotiate a one-year lease that's basically a feasibility period," said county manager Rocky Nelson.

"That gives them time to check with DENR (N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and see if they can put a structure on the closed cap. The one-year lease will be nominal and, at the end of that time, if they wish to go ahead with the project, the lease will be based on overall profitability. Our only stake in it is the land lease at this time."

Watauga Solar LLC has been developing the idea for several years. The company is headed by Ray Sinclair, a local building contractor for 25 years, and Ged Moody, who has a background in technology development. Though Moody now serves as sustainability director at ASU, the project is not directly connected with the university, since the company was formed before the ASU position was created.

"What Ray and I are going to be doing right now is a feasibility study," Moody said. "Environmentally, technically and financially, if the project is viable, which we believe it is, we will look for longer terms (in the contract). We'll spend a lot of time, energy and money on partners and we didn't want to spend it until we had this option."

The research will determine the scale of the solar plant, though Moody said it will be considered "mid-sized." The project will generate somewhere between one and two megawatts.

"A 1.5 megawatt project would have 7,500 solar panels and generate about 2 million kilowatt-hours annually," Moody said. "That's enough to power about 175 typical homes in this area and remove about 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."

Moody and Sinclair see four basic challenges to the project. One is working through the environmental permitting process, making sure the landfill surface is stable enough for construction. "Because it's a landfill, you can't go out there and start digging holes, so it has to have a ballast system," Moody said.

The second challenge is determining the technical design. "We don't have a lot of existing solar data for the town of Boone, so we're going to have to estimate the electricity output," Moody said.

The third area will be marketing solar-energy credits, which is "a complex, dynamic market that has lots of diverse layers," Moody said. "Historically, they have been bought by utility companies, but with climate-change legislation being discussed, there may be other corporate buyers."

Since both Moody and Sinclair received master's degrees from Appalachian State University's Department of Technology, they hope to tap into local talent and build on the area's reputation as a leader in sustainable development.

"The last challenge area is making this a community project and it will be a lot of hard work to make sure those connections are made," Moody said. "This has been a dream of ours for years. We just think it's a great project--a large-scale solar farm on property that is otherwise unusable."

Watauga Solar will sell energy itself and also sell the renewable energy credits, which can be sold locally or on open markets. The power itself will physically feed into Blue Ridge Electric Membership Cooperative's grid for distribution.

"We want to work with Watauga County (schools) and Appalachian State University to give their students an opportunity to learn from this project," Moody said. "For us, it's a chance to give back to that program."

Through local partners like Appalachian Initiative for Renewable Energy, the company also wants to allow local community members the opportunity to invest in the project. "We hope to leverage the expertise in the community," Moody said. "There are a lot of people here who have worked with solar farms and skilled contractors who need work."

The project would be one of the five largest solar plants in the state, but another company has done a landfill solar project in Haywood County that just came online this year. The half-megawatt plant was developed by FLS Energy.

"The project will be adjoining the Rocky Knob bike trail," Moody said. "Aside from the other great things, I think it has the potential to enhance tourism as well. We definitely want to make it available for students to come learn about renewable energy. This is the county's project, and Watauga Solar is the method of making it happen. The county has shown great leadership in being open to these ideas."

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