Through a Solar Transformation, a Former Landfill Is Poised to Become a Community Lifeline

In Sunnyside, Houston—a neighborhood that recently registered the city’s highest unemployment rate—residents are preparing for an influx of jobs to come from the Sunnyside Energy Community Solar project.

A sign for free health care next to a stop sign in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood

Credit: Scott Dalton for NRDC

In 1937, the city of Houston opened a 300-acre dump, the Holmes Road landfill, about 10 miles south of downtown and in the middle of one of its oldest historically Black communities, Sunnyside. In 1964, it added the Reed Road landfill less than a mile away from Holmes Road. Three years later came a new garbage incinerator—the city’s largest—also at Holmes Road.

The pollution burdens borne for decades by the Sunnyside community have been featured in books by Dr. Robert Bullard, the sociologist considered the father of environmental justice, and experienced firsthand by lifelong community member Efrem Jernigan. “That landfill was built in a Black neighborhood because white America felt it was OK to dump on Black America,” he says.

Both landfills and incinerators have been linked to birth defects, respiratory illness, and cancer among those who live nearby them, due to the harmful air pollutants, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals they emit. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found deadly levels of lead being discharged at the Sunnyside incinerator and shut it down in 1974.

“The health of the community has been horrible since…asthma, cancer, all of the ills Black communities suffer—from environmental injustice—we have in Sunnyside,” says the 58-year-old Jernigan, a chemical engineer by trade.

He’s working to change that. The defunct Holmes Road landfill—long unmaintained and overgrown—will soon host the largest urban solar project of its kind, a development Jernigan proposed in concert with Sunnyside Energy, where he now serves as vice president. At a private sector price tag of $70 million, the 240-acre project site will incorporate four components: a 50 MW (megawatt) ballasted utility-scale solar array, a 2 MW array community solar program, an aquaponics hub featuring a greenhouse and agricultural training space, and a new solar education facility. Construction is slated to begin in 2022, with the farm expected to be operational by year-end. Once up and running, it’s expected to produce enough renewable energy to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes, offsetting 120 million pounds of CO2 annually.

The Houston City Council will be providing the land through a $1 lease agreement with Sunnyside Energy, approved in January. The city retains ownership of the property and the liability for any waste material. Sunnyside Energy is responsible for restoration and maintenance of the landfill cover and installing retention ponds for stormwater storage that city officials hope will help mitigate chronic flooding problems.

Community leaders view the project as a just transition for a neighborhood where more than a third of residents live below the poverty level and which registered Houston’s highest unemployment rate—29 percent—in 2016. Residents have been promised at least 10 percent of the solar installation jobs to come, along with the requisite job training, in part due to the efforts of Jernigan.

Efrem Jernigan, vice president of Sunnyside Energy and longtime community resident, and students taking part in the STREAM course in July 2021
Credit: Allison Hess for NRDC

A Solar Job Pipeline in the Making

In July, Jernigan sat watching a performance by youth in the summer STREAM camp run by the neighborhood’s South Union Community Development Corporation (SUCDC), a nonprofit he founded 21 years ago to organize STEM programs for local youth, as well as computer and fellowship programs for the elderly.

The campers—a mix of elementary, middle, and high school students—had composed a rap song about solar energy, aquaponics, and other science and technology subjects they’d studied for the past two months at SUCDC’s solar outdoor classroom. The facility, built by Jernigan in 2018, sits on the property where he grew up. “They did a great job,” he said, of the students’ performance. “If we’re putting it in them, they ought to be able to regurgitate it in song,” quipped Jernigan.

The camp let out on July 30. Next is a three-month solar training course for community residents over age 18—a new program for SUCDC, as Jernigan and his team take on the task of preparing residents for jobs to come from the Sunnyside Energy Community Solar farm.

Jernigan began to develop his interest in solar power after meeting Dori Wolfe, founder of the renewable energy and energy efficiency company Wolfe Energy (who’s now also a director of Sunnyside Energy), following a presentation she gave to his STEM students in 2018. “We became friends,” he recounts. “Dori invited me to collaborate on doing the solar farm with an agricultural hub. I’m the community component of the team.” They submitted their proposal to be considered for the C40 Reinventing Cities competition, a challenge by 97 of the world’s cities to develop innovative, carbon-free, and resilient urban projects on underutilized parcels of land. Sunnyside Energy was selected as a winner in August 2019.

Dori Wolfe, founder of Wolfe Energy, on the future Sunnyside solar farm site with a blueprint for the in-ground solar panels
Credit: Allison Hess for NRDC

It was not the first time Houston had considered a solar farm for the landfill, which was capped in the late 1970s. In the decades that officials spent seeking out safe and productive reuses for the site—reviewing ideas ranging from a golf course to a skate park—they had formerly dismissed a solar proposal, deeming it too costly.

But by the time they saw Jernigan and Wolfe’s proposal, solar installation had become the fastest-growing occupation nationwide, owing to falling equipment costs and rising consumer demand. Between 2012 and 2017, more than 130,000 new jobs—one in every 100 jobs created overall—were in solar. Today, the industry employs more than 250,000 workers full-time, across all 50 states.

“Solar is coming, and you might as well be on the team vs. outside of the team,” Jernigan says. “So I’m training people to install solar panels on the roof or put them on the ground.” And it’s not just work opportunities the project will bring. “You know, if I can get half of these houses in Sunnyside to put in solar, it will save our residents money,” he adds.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner believes the benefits of the project extend well beyond the local community and sees it as a model for other city leaders to watch. “Reinventing the landfill into a solar farm will help bring much-needed economic development to the community and makes Sunnyside part of the international energy transition to using clean, renewable energy sources, reducing pollution, and limiting climate change in the process,” he said in a statement. The investment also makes the community a stakeholder in advancing the federal Build Back Better agenda, through which President Biden seeks to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2035 while creating jobs, enhancing equity, and improving people’s health.

Building Climate Resilience

“From an energy point of view, the best place to generate electricity is where it’s being used—in cities,” says BQ Energy founder Paul Curran, another stakeholder in Sunnyside Energy, who specializes in overhauling landfills for solar projects. “To do that, you need to find large tracts of land, which is always hard to do. The beauty of the Sunnyside project is that it’s right smack dab in the city of Houston.”

A segment of local residents will be able to harness the new green energy supply by taking advantage of the community-owned solar array planned for the northern end of the landfill. In partnership with groups like Solar United Neighbors, the co-op will sell its output to residents who choose to switch to solar energy and offer discounted power rates to broaden access. Residents who join the community solar farm will share the cost with others, paying for their subscription as a portion of their utility bill. In essence, they’ll buy renewable electricity up front and recoup their purchase through lower electric bills. The co-op is expected to generate enough electricity to power 200 homes annually.

Community solar strategies like this one are being used in more states to help make clean energy cheaper and more accessible to low-income communities and communities of color, who typically bear the highest energy burdens. Nationally, the 49.1 million households that earn less than $40,000 per year—40 percent of all U.S. households—make up less than 5 percent of solar installations, and as Dori Wolfe notes, more than a third of U.S. households are locked out of solar because they rent or live in multi-unit buildings. “Right now, people who have been able to incorporate solar into their lives tend to have an investment fund, a home, or a sufficiently sized roof. That leaves out a lot of households,” Wolfe says.

Other features of the project also help to prepare residents for the here-and-now implications of climate change. The farm will host a battery energy storage system to collect and store solar energy for backup electricity, providing resilience during utility outages (occurrences that are all too common in the Lone Star State), storms, or otherwise sunless days.

Plans for the indoor solar classroom, greenhouse, in-wall aquarium, kitchen, and computer lab at the future Sunnyside solar farm
Credit: Allison Hess for NRDC

Additionally, there’s the aquaponics hub and agricultural center, which addresses the community’s limited access to fresh produce. The idea for this component, says Jernigan, came in response to the limitations around growing food directly on the former landfill site, where the soil remains contaminated. Instead, Jernigan and his colleagues have designed plans for their urban farm to grow inside a two-story building made out of 14 shipping containers. Ultimately, they hope to set up a farmers’ market on the property, where locals can come to buy the fish and vegetables raised there, on the site of what was for so long a blight on their community.

Counting all these diverse components together, the massive project propels the economic development objective of Houston’s Complete Communities Initiative, the greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy of the city’s Climate Action Plan, and the citywide resilience-building efforts called for by Resilient Houston, says Lara Cottingham, who until recently was chief of staff and chief sustainability officer for the Houston Department of Administration & Regulatory Affairs.

“This is taking probably one of the biggest environmental justice concerns in Houston and really looking at it holistically from what the community needs, and working to turn what has been a burden on the community for decades into an asset,” Cottingham says “And the most important thing is the multiple opportunities around jobs with this project.”

She emphasizes that solar-trained workers will gain a long-term career path beyond this one project. “Long after the farm is built, that’s a skill you can take anywhere in the United States, because it’s a very needed skill.”

Jernigan with STREAM students at the outdoor solar classroom
Credit: Allison Hess for NRDC

Meanwhile, as construction gets underway, Jernigan will continue his educational mission, running the next training program at the outdoor solar classroom back on his parents’ former property. “My goal is preparing the community, providing the know-how,” he says. “There should be a pipeline: middle school to high school to college to the jobs.”

And keeping the community engaged in this vision seems to come naturally for Jernigan, whomever his pupils may be. “I teach math through the counting of kilowatts produced by solar energy, and the kids and parents are learning what a battery bank system is and how you can use it to bank your energy, because we just had an ice storm and everybody lost power,” he explains. “This project is really a lifeline to bring economic development to the community.”

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