Houston, home to nearly 4,600 energy-related firms, is making a big investment in solar. City officials are planning to turn a landfill in the Sunnyside neighborhood into a solar farm, a move positioned as an economic development initiative with equity at its core. Once completed it will be the largest brownfield solar installation in the U.S., according to city officials.
"The Sunnyside landfill has been one of Houston's biggest community challenges for decades, and I am proud we are one step closer to its transformation," said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner through a press release. "I thank the Sunnyside community because this project would not have come together without its support. This project is an example of how cities can work with the community to address long-standing environmental justice concerns holistically, create green jobs and generate renewable energy in the process."
In early January, Houston’s city council approved the lease of more than 200 acres of city-owned land to Sunnyside Energy, LLC, which was formed by Wolfe Energy, for only $1 a year. The Sunnyside Solar Project in the southern district will be anchored by a 50-megawatt (MW) ballasted solar array that will generate enough energy to power up to 5,000 homes. The installation also will offset an estimated 120 million pounds of CO2 emissions each year, according to the city, and it will bring in about $70 million of private investment into the predominantly Black community.
If you can do this in Houston, the energy capital of the world, you can do that anywhere.
The solar plant will be erected in what is known as the Sunnyside landfill, a garbage disposal site that has been shut down for more than 50 years. City officials are excited that the land finally will be of use to nearby residents and to the city as a whole.
The project was conceived when Houston joined the C40 Reinventing Cities Competition in 2017 — a global competition to develop carbon-free and climate-resilient urban projects. Alongside 13 other cities, Houston brainstormed how to sustainably develop underused parcels of land, and Wolfe Energy, a local sustainable energy company, proposed what is now the Sunnyside Solar Project.
The company then formed Sunnyside Energy, a team of community members, architects and engineers that will oversee the planning and construction of the solar panel farm. BQ Energy, a New York-based renewable energy company, is also assisting in developing the project. The plan is to sell the farm’s electricity to local companies; a portion of the energy will be community-owned as well.
Some aspects of the project are still up in the air, Cottingham explained. It’s unsure who will buy the energy once the solar farm is fully functional, and the pathways to funding are still to be determined as well.
"What is important to note is that it will not be funded by the city that the developer is going to make all of those determinations," she said. "The ultimate financing of the entire project and how the pricing and the offtake and all of those pieces will come together later. They will come together you know after we have the permitting ... once you have the permits, you know what can be constructed and then you can build out that financial model."
Despite all the details still to come, the solar farm already represents what may be an economic and ideological shift for a city heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry as a means of economic development and job stability for Houston residents.
"If you can do this in Houston, the energy capital of the world, you can do that anywhere," said Lara Cottingham, chief sustainability officer for Houston. "That is not just because we have regulatory challenges that make it more difficult, but because ideological, historically, as a fossil fuel-based economy, and for a very long time, there's been an idea that it's an either-or."
In 2020, the oil and gas industry employed more than 190,000 workers across Texas. However, that number fell from more than 200,000 workers employed in the industry in 2019, the Houston Chronicle reported last year. As major cities such as Houston begin to phase out fossil fuels in hopes of meeting sustainability goals such as becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2050, Cottingham said the city has to invest and plan for green energy within the next few years.
"[Sunnyside Solar Project] is one step in that direction. … That's where it's going to develop into, we're working on rooftop solar and what can we do to get more distributed, resilient energy systems here," Cottingham said. "For the folks who live in apartments, for the folks who can't afford the capital cost of rooftop solar, and that is a very real challenge."
According to a 2020 presentation from the Houston Office of Sustainability, the proposed solar farm is one of the best ways to make use of the landfill. The presentation argued that the farm will be "minimally invasive to build, silent to run, and produce no harmful byproducts." It also promised that the farms could ensure "decades of safe and stable economic benefits" for the nearby residents through the potential job opportunities and hopes of saving money on energy bills.
Projects like this are also important, from the idea of bringing the energy sector bringing benefits into parts of the community that might not have benefited from it previously.
Most Sunnyside residents that lived near the closed landfill for years are African American or Latino, two communities often underrepresented in the energy industry and in the country’s growing renewable energy sector.
"Projects like this are also important, from the idea of bringing the energy sector bringing benefits into parts of the community that might not have benefited from it previously," Cottingham explained.
Houston’s Office of Sustainability promises that local contractors will be hired to install the solar panels and that training will be provided for them. Qualifying residents in the Sunnyside area also will be eligible for discounted power.
"It is a strong vote of confidence for this impactful project. All members of the project team realize that this Sunnyside Solar facility will be an iconic statement in the rejuvenation of the community," said Dori Wolfe, managing director of Sunnyside Energy.
Cottingham said other major energy companies in Houston have taken notice of the Sunnyside Solar Farm as an inspiration to decarbonize, something that also points to how traditional oil and gas companies are considering going green. Construction is expected to start by the end of 2021.
The public-private solar partnership plans on being fully installed and operational by the end of 2022, if all goes to plan.