greenlight

Houston gets approval to build $70M solar farm on former landfill property

A project that would create the largest urban solar farm in the country just got the greenlight. Photo via Getty Images

A vacant landfill that for decades endangered and diminished Houston’s low-income Sunnyside neighborhood has gotten the green light for conversion into a solar energy farm.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Earth Day, April 22, that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had granted a permit for the $70 million Sunnyside Solar Farm, which was originally announced last year.

The project will be anchored by 70 megawatts of solar panels installed across 224 acres. The farm will produce enough energy to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. The project also will feature a 2-megawatt community solar installation, an education hub, and an agricultural center

Image courtesy of the city of Houston

City officials say the project will be the largest urban solar farm in the country and will remove an estimated 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year.

“I am optimistic about the future of this land and the people who live in the resilient neighborhood that developed around this environmental injustice,” Turner says in a news release. “Most importantly, it will transform the built environment of a historically under-served and under-resourced community by bringing private investment to Sunnyside, a predominantly Black and brown community that struggles daily with historical inequities that have created present-day disparities.”

In conjunction with the project, 175 Houstonians will be trained at Houston Community College and Lone Star College for solar and solar-related jobs.

“We used an environmental justice lens to reimagine this landfill. And we made equity the central and most critical component of our site redevelopment plans for Sunnyside,” Turner says.

Sunnyside Energy plans to seek permission from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to connect to the electric grid serving the bulk of Texas.

The Sunnyside landfill opened in the 1930s; it was closed in the 1970s after high levels of lead were discovered at the site. The City of Houston owns the land and is leasing it to Sunnyside Energy, which will own and operate the solar farm, for $1. Sunnyside Energy is a subsidiary of Houston-based Wolfe Energy.

A report from RMI, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy, estimated that the more than 10,000 shuttered landfills across the U.S. could host 63 gigawatts of solar capacity, enough energy to power 7.8 million American homes.

The mayor announced the approval on Earth Day. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Trending News