Local Government:City of Houston, Texas
Project:Sunnyside Landfill Solar Project
Category:Community Solar, Partnerships and Collaborations
To build 52 MW of utility-scale solar on a local, 240-acre former landfill site that has limited reuse potential. The solar array, which includes 2 MW of community solar, will provide clean, locally generated power and create economic benefits for the historically disadvantaged community surrounding the landfill.
In 2017, the City of Houston joined the C40 Reinventing Cities Competition — a global competition to transform underutilized sites in cities into sustainable and resilient urban projects. Through the competition, Houston identified underutilized parcels of land for sustainable redevelopment, including the City-owned, 240-acre former landfill in the Sunnyside Community near downtown Houston. The City chose the site not only for its clean energy generation potential, but also for its environmental justice and economic development potential. The landfill has been closed and capped since the 1970s, but it has negatively affected the surrounding community for decades.
As part of the competition, the City sent out a call for proposals for how to repurpose this land. The City specifically wanted developments that improved local environmental quality, showcased the City’s sustainability efforts, and had additional benefits for the surrounding community. Closed landfills, broadly considered “brownfields,” have limited reuse options given potential contamination and prior use limiting ground penetration — and therefore future development. However, they can be a great place to site solar.
In 2019, the City announced that the Sunnyside Energy project team, led by Wolfe Energy and BQ Energy, won the City’s bid to redevelop the landfill site. The proposal planned for installing 50 MW of utility-scale solar on the site, 2 MW of community solar, 150 MW of battery storage, and an Agricultural Hub and Training Center, all coupled with plans to create partnerships with the surrounding historically disadvantaged community. To complement the project, Representative Al Green (D-Texas) secured $750,000 in discretionary funds from Congress to provide a solar workforce development training program at the neighboring Sunnyside Community Center.
The City will lease the land to the Sunnyside Energy group for $1 per year and the project team will design, build, operate, and maintain the solar array. The project will connect to the grid operated by CenterPoint Energy, but the solar and battery storage projects will be privately owned and financed. The landfill solar array will power 5,000–10,000 homes with clean, locally generated energy, and bring an estimated 100 jobs to the area. To date, this will be the largest urban landfill solar project in the United States with significant economic and environmental benefits for the community. The project is expected to offset 120 million pounds of CO2 per year, or roughly 54,432 metric tons. This is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from over 43,000 gasoline-powered cars driven for one year.
In April 2022, the City and the Sunnyside Energy Project team announced that they reached a major milestone. They received official approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to build the solar array. The City hopes to break ground in 2023 and have the array be fully operational by July 2023.
How was the deal structured?
The Sunnyside landfill site does not have any specific zoning rules. In its bidding process for proposals during the C40 Resilient Cities Competition, the City of Houston was open to creative proposals for how to develop this site. However, bidding teams had to show all the necessary precautions they would take to not disrupt the existing landfill cap.
Wolfe Energy and BQ Energy Development won Houston’s competition for this project. Wolfe Energy formed the Sunnyside Energy Project — made up of a team of engineers, architects, community members, and artists — to create a vision for how to transform the abandoned landfill site into an urban solar farm. As part of the agreement with Wolfe Energy, the City will lease the land to Wolfe Energy for just $1 per year but retain ownership of the land. In return, Wolfe Energy will be responsible for the permitting, construction, operation, and maintenance of the project (an estimated $70 million private investment into the community). The company will also perform remediation of the property.
What were Houston’s biggest challenges in setting up this project?
Making the Sunnyside Solar Farm a true community asset. A long history of fighting environmental injustice in the community meant that ensuring transparent, open dialogue and thorough community engagement efforts from both the project developers, Sunnyside Energy, and the City of Houston would be critical to the success of the project. Sunnyside Energy worked with the City to complete financial and environmental feasibility studies and has been communicating with and gathering input from the Sunnyside community at every step of the process.
What advice would Houston give other local governments as they pursue climate action projects?
Consider the clean energy potential of closed landfills and other brownfields in your area. The Sunnyside Landfill Solar Project provides an example of how cities can combat the climate crisis while creating jobs and addressing environmental injustice. Not only will it contribute to the Houston Climate Action Plan’s target of generating 5 million MWh of local solar energy per year by 2050, but it will also bring an estimated $70 million in private investment to the Sunnyside community and create jobs and training opportunities in one of the fastest growing job markets today.
Encourage community voices at every stage in site reenvisioning. True equity and addressing environmental injustice requires a cooperative approach with the local community. In this project, the City and project team went beyond informing the local community to seeking and acting upon their input.
Hire a knowledgeable and qualified project team to install landfill solar. The City of Houston selected the Sunnyside Energy project team, including Wolfe Energy and BQ Energy, through a competitive proposal. This process ensured transparency, but also provided an opportunity to compare project teams and ideas for expertise and quality.
How does this project fit into Houston’s broader climate and community goals?
In March of 2022, Houston released a report detailing its progress over the previous two years toward the City’s Climate Action Plan, a science-based, community-driven strategy for the City to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and help advance the global energy transition. The plan is part of the City’s Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts and builds upon Resilient Houston, the City’s framework for helping to mitigate flooding risks and improve climate readiness.
The Climate Action Plan pertains to all emissions generated within Houston city limits. Transitioning to renewable energy is a core component of the plan, but the climate action goals also extend to transportation, buildings, and materials management. In addition, the plan ties the strategic goals in these four areas to solutions that emphasize equity and inclusivity and can provide multiple other community benefits, such as cost savings and affordability, economic growth and workforce development, improved environmental quality, and more.
The Sunnyside Landfill Solar Project will help advance Houston toward its goals of transitioning to renewable energy and being carbon neutral by 2050. The project will offset 54,432 metric tons of CO2 per year and provide clean energy to the Sunnyside and Houston communities. The project will also provide other key economic and equity benefits to the surrounding area.
Additional Information and Resources
- Houston City Council Approves Largest Brownfield Solar Project in the Nation (City of Houston press release)
- Mayor Turner Announces TCEQ Approval Of Largest Urban Solar Farm In The Country (City of Houston press release)
- The City of Houston Selects Firm Proposing Solar Energy Farm at Former Sunnyside Landfill (City of Houston project announcement)
- Houston Gets the Green Light for Nation’s Largest Urban Solar Farm (News article)
- Sunnyside Landfill (C40 Cities, Reinventing Cities Competition project summary)
- Houston approves brownfield solar project (News article)
- Sunnyside will soon be home to the largest urban solar farm in the country (News article)
- Texas approves record U.S. urban solar project (News article)
- RE-Powering Tracking Matrix (EPA Brownfield project tracking tool)
- Turning Trash into Treasure (RMI article about landfill solar)
- The Future of Landfills is Bright (RMI report about landfill solar)
This project was included on the Renewables Accelerator’s list: 10 of the Most Noteworthy Local Government Renewables Deals of 2021.