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Solar panels ready for long-awaited installation at Lorton landfill

Solar Panels (via Flickr/Minoru Karamatsu)

After years of effort, solar panels are finally coming to the I-95 Landfill Complex in Lorton.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion on Sept. 13 to lease about 40 acres of the county-owned closed landfill within the complex to Sun Tribe Solar to install, operate, and maintain an array of ground-mounted solar panels.

Sun Tribe Solar, in turn, will let the county purchase renewable energy generated at the site with little upfront or operational costs, which staff say will help the county reduce its greenhouse emissions.

With the company quoting a rate of about 11 cents per kilowatt hour with no escalation over the life of the agreement, the county expects to save money immediately — about $51,000 in the first year of operation and over $1 million cumulatively by year eight.

Thought to be the first such project in the Commonwealth, the panels are expected to be installed and go online by the end of 2024, Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) Deputy Director Eric Forbes said at the meeting.

A map of where the solar panels will go at the I-95 Landfill Complex (via Fairfax County)

As a number of supervisors noted, though, it was a long time coming, with a number of challenges along the way.

Despite solid local support, the county needed approval from the Virginia General Assembly for solar panels to be installed on its land. The county was exploring the project at least as early as 2017, but every time it was taken to the state legislature, their request was denied.

The needed permission came at last from the 2020 Solar Freedom Act, which included a specific clause providing Fairfax County the go-ahead for the landfill project.

“I really wish this had happened a long time ago when I was chair of the environment committee because that’s when we first started having this discussion,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said. “[A closed landfill] is perfect for solar. If it had not been for that pesky Virginia General Assembly not allowing it unless there was a change in the legislation, we would have done this a long time ago and would have been way ahead of the game.”

Gross wasn’t the only one to express frustration at the state holding up a project that the county says will increase its use of renewable energy while also saving money.

“Who would have ever thought that it would be a hard task to ask the General Assembly to let Fairfax County do what it wants with its property that is owned by our citizens that we are accountable to?” Chairman Jeff McKay asked rhetorically. “So, there is a bit of frustration for how long this has taken.”

Plus, there were some challenges with several previous vendors who didn’t hit deadlines and uphold their end of the deal, Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Stork noted. The county hopes Sun Tribe Solar will be the right and reliable partner.

The solar panel project at the I-95 Landfill Complex is another example of how the county is attempting to transform that area into more than a trash site.

In June, the county’s planning commission gave the green light for preliminary plans to convert another portion of the closed landfill at the site into a public park called Overlook Ridge Park.

That project is “progressing” with a site plan submission anticipated later this fall or early winter, Fairfax County Park Authority spokesperson Judith Pedersen told FFXnow. It is still on track to open in 2025, she said.

As was noted at the meeting, the solar panels will not encroach on the public park.

Despite the challenges, several supervisors shared their excitement that solar panels are finally set to be installed and will fulfill several county goals, including more efficient county land use, cut costs, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

“I’m hopeful…that the sun keeps shining,” Gross said.

Photo via Minoru Karamatsu/Flickr

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