When Anthony “Skip” Scirocco looks at the capped landfill on Weibel Avenue, he struggles to think of a better use for the 110-acre property than a 2.5 mW solar array.
“I don’t think there’s a better use than to have something like this, a solar park, in an area like this that would actually benefit the community for years and years to come,” said Scirocco, the city’s public works commissioner. “It’s a great example of our progressive and climate-smart attitude toward projects that will benefit future generations.”
Scirocco was speaking at a Wednesday groundbreaking ceremony for the Spa Solar Park, construction on which is due to begin within two weeks.
“The park is projected to generate close to 40 percent of the city’s energy usage and be fully energized sometime this summer,” said Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, whose department took the lead on the project.
The event’s lectern was placed on a patchwork of astroturf, put down by DPW workers due to the wetness of the landfill following recent rains. The wet ground has delayed the project slightly.
“We’ll start receiving materials early next week and most likely we’ll have our permit secured from the city within the next two weeks, and our subcontractor, Miller Brothers, will mobilize on the site,” said John Drexinger, senior vice president of business and project development for ONYX Renewable Partners.
The New York City-based company, which operates under The Blackstone Group private equity firm, took on the project about six months ago after SunEdison went bankrupt in April 2016. The work is being supported by a $1.46 million NY-Sun grant the city received in 2013.
“We picked up several projects from SunEdison, and Saratoga Springs was one of them,” Drexinger said, adding that the company is building three other solar parks on landfills in Massachusetts. “We like the project. The city has been very helpful and easy to work with.”
Building a solar array on a landfill presents some challenges, he said. The Spa City site will include 7,632 ballasted, ground-mounted panels spanning 43 acres.
“Everything on the landfill is above grade,” he said, saying that includes conduits for electrical wiring. “Nothing goes below. There’s no trenching or anything, because you can’t penetrate the cap.”
A surveyor had already placed flags on the site to prepare for the installation, he said.
“They’ll start placing the ballast blocks first, and then they’ll build the racking, and then they’ll start mounting the modules on that,” he said.
The panels will be installed and operated at no cost to city taxpayers through a 20-year power purchase agreement with ONYX. The project is estimated to save the city at least $100,000 on its annual utility bill, Madigan said. It will also offset an estimated 2,316 tons of CO2, the equivalent of powering 245 homes, per year.
“This is what we hope will be a first phase for our city,” she said. “A second phase is planned, and that’s called Community Solar, and that will be perhaps an additional large solar park on the scale that were talking about today that will be primarily for businesses, residents, homeowners, renters and nonprofit organizations.”
Marilyn Smith, a representative from U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko’s office, read a statement on his behalf. According to Tonko, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, 9.5 gigawatts of solar-generating capacity were added in the United States in 2016, which is three times that of 2015. The solar industry also employed more 260,000 people in 2016.
“If we are going to address climate change, increasing clean energy deployment like this project must be part of the solution,” Smith read from the congressman’s statement. “Even if our federal government does not currently acknowledge the risks of climate change or the opportunities for investing in the clean energy economy, there are plenty of cities, states and businesses that do, and we need to keep encouraging them.”
The idea for the solar park was brought to the city by Larry Toole, a former Sustainable Saratoga board member, in 2012.
“In our view, this project is a huge win-win and is a great example of the business case for sustainability,” said Harry Moran, the organization’s chairman. “The city gets to significantly reduce its carbon footprint and dependence on fossil fuels while reducing its electrical usage and saving taxpayers considerable money.”
Mayor Joanne Yepsen called the project “a great launching point for where we can go as a city.”