DRYDEN, N.Y.—A closed landfill in the Town of Dryden may have a new life as the source of renewable energy for thousands of local homes and businesses.

A Memorandum of Understand (MOU) between Tompkins County and NYSERDA, the state’s energy development agency, has been reached that would allow the two organizations to work together on reusing the former Caswell Road landfill for the development of a large-scale solar energy facility.

“The potential to generate solar energy from the Caswell Road site is huge. Tompkins County has aggressive goals on being a net-zero organization, generating electricity from solar on otherwise dormant land is a great opportunity,” said Tompkins County Legislative Chairwoman Shawna Black in the announcement.

The 112-acre landfill was opened in 1970, the year Tompkins County assumed waste management duties for most of its constituent communities, and accepted an average of nearly 30,000 tons of waste annually prior to its closing in 1985 (and since the closure of the Hillview Road landfill in Danby in 1992, all landfill waste has been trucked out of the county). The decommissioned landfill has been capped with a soil layer, vented for decomposition gases, and monitoring wells check the groundwater around the site.

The wastewater that percolates through (called “leachate”) is collected in two underground tanks, regularly pumped out by a supervised contractor, and brought to the waterwater plant in Ithaca. According to a press release from NYSERDA, any renewable energy project on the site will be designed and constructed in accordance with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation post-closure maintenance and monitoring requirements for landfills.

According to NYSERDA, the MOU allows the agency to conduct further due diligence and community engagement to evaluate the prospects of a large-scale renewable energy project, solar in the case of the Caswell Road proposal. If there is local acceptance, strong project feasibility, and an agreement to move forward between NYSERDA and the counties, NYSERDA initiates development activities including detailed engineering, interconnection, and permitting, as part of its “Build-Ready Program”.

Gauzy polished press releases are all well and good, but The Ithaca Voice isn’t doing readers much of a service if the only information is straight from NYSERDA’s press apparatus. Town of Dryden Deputy Supervisor Dan Lamb was kind enough to fill in some of the blanks.

So let’s start with a detail the press release left out — a potential timeline. For one, NYSERDA will need to have the project reviewed, and that will be done by Tompkins County, as the land is county-owned. Projects over 20 megawatts have to undergo state-level review, but the Caswell Road plan is expected to fall below that size threshold. That means it only needs to go through the county’s Site Plan Review process, which will be done in consultation with the town of Dryden.

For two, NYSERDA will need a partner developer for the solar array and any associated facilities. In the Build-Ready program, NYSERDA fronts the project assessment costs and purchases renewable energy credits from the developer to offset the infrastructure costs. In turn, the solar developer is responsible for all the operational and maintenance expenses. Site plan review and NYSERDA’s business arrangements are going to take some time.

“The timeline for this project depends on how quickly NYSERDA acts to complete the scoping work, which includes the site plan study and interconnection analysis,” said Lamb. “It will most likely connect to the (electrical) substation on Peruville Road. Additional steps in the process include site plan approval at the municipal level, and NYSERDA soliciting potential solar developers. In the best-case scenario, work could start in 2024.” 

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Lamb added that the town has considered solar at the Caswell Road site for several years, so this isn’t exactly a new idea to town officials and staff. “Dryden considered this site in 2017 as an option for the solar projects. Those projects ended up being sited in Ellis Hollow and on Dryden Road. At the time, the cost of the interconnection and the challenges of siting the project on the landfill moved interest elsewhere.”  

“Since then, the state has set more aggressive goals for emission reduction and put forward the funding needed to make locations such as Caswell Road viable. Additionally, advances in the design of ballast mounted solar (arrays) have made former landfills appropriate locations. It’s important to note that the supporting structure for these solar panels will not penetrate the landfill cap.”

Lamb noted that the project would not only help the town move closer to achieving its net-zero energy goal by the year 2045, meaning that the town provides enough renewable energy to equal all energy locally consumed, the Caswell Road solar project would potentially provide some taxpayer benefits as well. This would be through a payment in lieu of property taxes (PILOT), changing the property from county-owned tax-exempt to a private taxable entity, albeit at a reduced rate from the “fair market assessment” of the infrastructure.

There’s a lot to like about this MOU. It repurposes an underutilized county “brownfield” and bring it back into productive use. It brings Dryden and Tompkins County closer to hitting their renewable energy goals, and it has a positive economic impacts in the construction and in the newly-generated PILOT revenue. That said, it’s going to take time, effort and willing parties, public and private, to make this happen. The Voice will keep you posted as plans are brought forward for the county and the town of Dryden to review.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.org.