Sunnyside Up

What's Going on with the Sunnyside Solar Farm?

A closed city dump on the edge of one of Houston’s oldest historically Black southside neighborhoods is set to become the nation’s biggest urban solar farm—and we have questions.

By Gwendolyn Knapp April 6, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Wait, so Sunnyside is getting a solar farm?

Indeed. In 2017 the city solicited ideas internationally for carbon-neutral projects that could potentially be developed on a former, unmaintained Sunnyside landfill that’s been closed for 50 years. “Turned out everything we got back was solar,” says Lara Cottingham, the city’s chief sustainability officer, who handles all things climate change for the city.

In December Mayor Sylvester Turner and city council approved a $1 lease with one of those teams, Sunnyside Energy (a partnership between Wolfe Energy and BQ Energy, two companies that specialize in overhauling sites for solar energy uses), that will convert the dump into the largest brownfield solar installation in the nation—an astounding 240 acres. Thousands of Houstonians will be able to power their homes or businesses with clean energy from the Sunnyside Solar Farm by 2023.

In classic Houston fashion, the solar farm will be a private-public partnership, and it’s expected to cost $70 million to develop. The project is part of the city’s Climate Action Plan and Complete Communities Initiative, which Turner notes “will help bring much-needed economic development to the community and also makes Sunnyside part of the international energy transition to using ‘clean,’ renewable energy sources, reducing pollution and limiting climate change in the process.”

What exactly will this solar farm look like, and what will it do?

As of right now, plans call for a 50-megawatt ballasted solar array, composed of hundreds of thousands of gleaming solar panels stationed like a grounded alien spacecraft, to generate enough electricity to power roughly 5,000 homes.

But the solar farm will do much more than supply green energy to Houston homes and businesses. The community has been deeply involved in much of the planning, and part of the land will house an ag hub for aquaponics and a raised-bed handicap-accessible labyrinth. Kids and adults will be able to learn about solar and STEM topics at educational facilities run by Sunnyside Energy’s Efrem Jernigan, who grew up here. “All of these things have to be done in a really safe manner,” says Cottingham. “And we’re going to go through a process to make sure that it’s appropriate.”

There will be opportunities for residents to receive solar installation training at the neighboring Sunnyside Community Center that could land them jobs—Sunnyside Energy’s goal is to employ 10 percent of staff locally (it takes about 300 to 500 to build the farm, and about a dozen to run it, according to Dori Wolfe, founder of Wolfe Energy and managing director of Sunnyside Energy). And a portion of it will operate as a co-op owned by the community.

The city believes the farm will prevent potential future environmental hazards posed by the landfill and help retain and store storm water to aid in flood mitigation. It’s also expected to offset 120 million pounds of CO2 per year. “In the first five years of operation, it will have offset the carbon it took to create the farm,” Wolfe told Houston Public Media back in 2019.

Is it safe to develop something on this dump?

“You’re right to question agriculture on a landfill,” says Wolfe, who reiterates that the aquaponic farm is “raised, sealed, closed cycle, and nothing touches the landfill.”

The city had considered other uses for the site over the years, including a previous (too-expensive-at-the-time) solar project, and even a golf course. But to do full remediation on the site would be incredibly expensive—millions upon millions— and challenging, says Cottingham.  For starters, where would all that dug up landfill crud go?

“That’s why solar is a good fit,” she says. “We are better at maintaining and containing the landfill and keeping people from being on it in a really productive way. You can have job training associated with it, but not involving day-to-day interaction.”

What does this mean for Sunnyside and Houston itself?

“I remember my dad going to the dump. When I was a little girl I would ride with him,” said City Council Member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz during a townhall on the project last November. “So this is fabulous.”

In fact, many are touting the project—repurposing a literal toxic dump into a bastion of clean energy—as a form of environmental justice, since historically landfills are more commonly located near Black communities and people of color, and this one has been sitting overgrown for five decades.

“It’s giving back to this community that has, in many ways, suffered from this landfill,” says Cottingham. “But it’s also bringing clean energy to Houston, as the energy capital of the world.” 

Some low-income Sunnyside residents will have the chance to get discounted power rates, and the community itself will own a portion of the farm. And though Texans elsewhere are busy battling such solar farms—there is limited data on whether these projects devalue nearby homes—Sunnyside residents have voiced different concerns during planning meetings: Gentrification, for one, and what could happen in the case of a hurricane—the panels are rated to withstand up to 140-mph-hurricane-force winds.

So, what happens next?

Now that city council has approved the lease, says Cottingham, “The clock is ticking on getting all the appropriate permits, getting interconnection with ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] and the electricity grid—those are the next big hurdles.”

The City and Sunnyside Energy will also conduct more community meetings to answer questions and gather feedback as they prepare to move to the next step, with construction slated to begin in 2022. It will take about nine months to build, per Wolfe.

After that, expect the project to become the model for other cities. “We were on a call with the incoming Biden admin’s White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and Mayor Turner mentioned this project, and cities across the US reached out to me immediately and said, ‘We have a landfill and want to know how you did that,’” says Cottingham. 

But if you imagine more Houston solar farms popping up, that probably won’t happen, thanks to the lack of greenspace out there to support a project of this scale within city limits. “This is a little bit of a unicorn,” Cottingham says of the project. “But we love this process. How we took challenging property and said, ‘Let the community think what this could be.’ And we found a way to do this at no cost to the city”

And anyway, she muses, “How fitting is it that the largest urban solar farm would be in Houston in a community called Sunnyside?”

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