A huge solar array is planned for Worcester’s Greenwood Street Landfill. The project has been celebrated by the city. But it has some naturalists concerned about the future of wildlife in Massachusetts.
Soon, Worcester could become home to Massachusetts’ largest municipally owned solar array. Panels would sit atop a 26-acre stretch of capped landfill. This site would be an important source of renewable energy for Worcester.
‘Sort of going through a rebirth right now’
The Greenwood Street landfill is a windy hill surrounded by trees, overlooking parts of the city, the Worcester-Providence Turnpike, and Route 20. The top had been recently seeded, and the well-spaced four-inch shoots of grass were more suggestive of a new lawn than a solar project. A solar project that has John Odell, Worcester’s director of energy and assets, really excited.
“From the city’s perspective, this is a huge win,” Odell said. “This is financially a huge win. This is a huge win in terms of walking the walk, as it were, in terms of climate adaptation and mitigation, that we all want to do. It’s also a great hedge, in terms of economics.”
A “hedge” because Worcester officials expect the solar array to produce up to 20 percent of the yearly electricity city facilities use. And it will, in fact, not only save money, but be a money maker. Odell estimates 20 years after the solar array goes in, the city’ll be $20- to $25 million ahead.
And there’s another thing, according to Odell: For Worcester, this would be a signpost for the city’s new green outlook.
“Part of it is that Worcester is an industrial town that’s sort of going through a rebirth right now,” Odell said. “And this is one of the many things that Worcester’s doing to sort of showcase that we’re coming into the 21st century here, we’re green, we’re trying to promote economic development, and this is just one rather large project to sort of showcase that.”
A habitat threatened
But not everyone is happy about the planned solar array. You might think environmentalists would love a big renewable energy project. But they had other ideas for what to do with this land. After the landfill was originally capped in the mid-1980s, nature took the site back. It became a grassland habitat some hoped to make into an urban wildlife sanctuary.
“It’s buffy underneath,” described birder Mark Lynch. “It’s got this extraordinary color pattern on the upper part of its feathers, and it’s got a little yellow bend in the wing.”
In his Worcester home, Lynch gave me the basics on the grasshopper sparrow, a bird he’s monitored since the 1970s. The sparrows have flown south for the winter, so he showed me pictures his wife took of the sparrow on his laptop.
“And I’ll show you how you normally see them,” Lynch said. “This is really more realistic pictures of them. They love to perch up in like single bushes or tall weeds within sort of a rough grassland environment, and that’s where they’ll sing and advertise their territory there.”
Since 1995, the state of Massachusetts has labeled this bird “threatened.” And the Greenwood Street landfill? It’s been one of its breeding sites. Lynch and other grasshopper sparrow fans had pitted their hopes on using the landfill to save the sparrows.
“It was really interesting because here you have an urban environment, and in the middle of it was this raised island that was this incredible grassland habitat,” Lynch said.
A deal with the state
Lynch — along with the group Mass Audubon — wants the city to ditch the big solar project — and instead construct a handful of smaller arrays around Worcester
But the city struck a deal with the state, a compromise of sorts, that requires Worcester to either find new homes for the sparrows or provide funding for existing habitats elsewhere in the state.
Jesse Leddick, a biologist with the Massachusetts department of Natural Heritage & Endangered Species, defended the arrangement.
“With the Greenwood Street Landfill being a fairly small contributor to the conservation of the species, that either creation of habitat elsewhere or funding for land protection or habitat enhancement could actually provide a long-term net benefit,” Leddick said.
But it’s not quite a done deal. This big solar project hinges on the legislature raising the net metering cap. That’s necessary before Worcester can sell some of the excess energy it gets through the solar panels back to the electric company. The big pay-off. The state House and Senate passed separate bills last year raising the cap, but they still have to work out the differences.
If a compromise is reached and all goes as planned, installation on the Greenwood Street landfill would begin in late spring, with the panels accepting sunlight by the end of the summer — around the time the grasshopper sparrows used to migrate south from their grassy, urban sanctuary.