'This is historic': City agrees to lease Sunnyside landfill for solar farm, charging $1 a year
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz remembers going as a girl with her dad from their home in Third Ward to the city-owned dump in Sunnyside, smelling it as they neared.
Houston’s decision to put the landfill in a historically Black community is seen as one of a number of examples in the region of environmental racism, a practice of pursuing and enacting policies that disproportionally affect people of color.
Evans-Shabazz saw it then as just how things were. With time, she questioned: “Why is it here?”
On Wednesday, Evans-Shabazz joined her fellow Houston City Council members in trying to bring positive change to the site of the landfill, which closed decades ago. The council voted unanimously to lease it for $1 a year to become a solar farm.
Council member Tiffany Thomas praised the vote as “environmental justice” that would get rid of and reverse some of the damage done.
Some solar farms have been shown to depress home values, and other communities vehemently oppose them. But Sunnyside advocates rallied behind the idea, saying it gives the community a chance to set an example for the nation.
As Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered an opportunity to take a property that was dragging a community down and reimagine it for the better.
“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he told the council before the vote.
The old landfill was a discouraging sight, with trash reaching to the sky, recalled Sandra Massie Hines, known as Sunnyside’s unofficial mayor. It began operating in the 1930s, before Sunnyside was annexed by the city.
Options were limitedafter it closed, but residents long hoped to see the tree-covered land redeveloped.
“We’ve spent years waiting for some help,” said Hines, who has worked on the project. “We’re proud of this. And we’re proud of our community, we’re proud of our city, proud of our mayor.”
The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece of how contaminated property can be repurposed.
The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.
Chief Sustainability Officer Lara Cottingham, who spearheaded the project, has called the effort “historic.”
The concept drew from a 2017 competition to get ideas for the property located on Bellfort Avenue, east of Texas 288 and south of Loop 610. Previous efforts included turning it into a golf course.
A team called Sunnyside Energy LLC pitched the idea. Dori Wolfe of Wolfe Energy envisioned installing the solar panels. She called Efrem Jernigan, who was born and grew up in Sunnyside, to see what he thought. (BQ Energy later joined the effort.)
Jernigan has a program for teaching science and math to kids, and previously invited Wolfe to make a presentation to them. He still remembers the song she sang them, “What is a watt?”
Her idea for Sunnyside struck him as a chance to bring something positive to a community that the city previously saw fit for a dump. He helped develop the project and built an outdoor solar classroom there to teach and build excitement around it.
“You drive by it, and it’s just a waste,” he said of the landfill. “But now you can turn something that was an eyesore into something that, internationally, people will come see and learn from.”
The company intends to sell 50 megawatts of power to retailers or directly to customers. A smaller portion will be community-owned. There will be a community Aquaponics farm — allowing for plants to be grown above ground instead of in the landfill soil — and project organizers have also promised to train and hire locally.
Wolfe and Jernigan on Tuesday joined those dialing in to another virtual council meeting to express support ahead of the vote. Wolfe called the lease a “milestone.” Jernigan called it a “ray of sunshine.”
Charles Cave, a nearby resident also involved in shepherding the project, reminded council members ofthe larger history of landfills placed in disadvantaged neighborhoods. He told them improving the property was “well overdue.”
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