Solar on Mount Trashmore?

Some environmentalists want to build a solar farm atop the Doolittle dump. But not everyone is on board.


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Photo by Clayton J. Mitchell

You’d think Mount Trashmore would be easy to spot. Officially known as the Doolittle dump, the Alameda landfill covers 40 acres on Bay Farm Island and reaches a height of 56 feet, which arguably makes it the tallest formation in the city. But Mount Trashmore stopped receiving waste in 1981 and now blends into the landscape, looking a like a naturally occurring hillock: sunbaked slopes erupt with wildflowers in spring, providing habitat for wildlife and a bucolic backdrop for dog walkers.

Still, clues to Mount Trashmore’s wasted past remain: A network of pumps and pipes lead to a gas burner that periodically wheezes as it lights up to convert methane produced by the old landfill into carbon dioxide.

And now some environmental advocates, intent on further reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, are eyeing Mount Trashmore as a potential site for a large solar farm. “Almost everybody in Alameda probably passes this spot in a six-month period,” said local resident Richard Bangert, as he stood at the base of the landfill, which is bounded by Doolittle Drive, Doolittle Pond, and San Leandro Bay. “So, if the site became a solar farm, it would be like a marquee you couldn’t miss. It would have PR value beyond putting lightbulbs in everybody’s mailbox.”

A few years ago, Alameda Municipal Power, or AMP, took some flak when it used revenue from a $25 million sale of renewable energy credits in 2012 to provide each household with two LED lightbulbs. “It was a well-meaning effort that set the example of using less electricity,” Bangert said.

But now AMP’s Public Utility Board has approved the sale of another $8 million to $9 million in credits, and Bangert is urging the publicly owned utility to invest in building solar. “Up until now, AMP’s business model has been to provide as much green power as possible by buying it,” he noted.

AMP’s General Manager Nicolas Procos said the utility’s board of directors will examine local power generation options at its Oct. 16 meeting. “Staff will present a very preliminary cost benefit analysis,” Procos said of the October meeting, noting that Mount Trashmore, as well as solar partnerships with the school district, are to be discussed.

But not all environmentalists are keen on the idea of building a solar farm atop Mount Trashmore. Golden Gate Audubon Executive Director Cindy Margulis noted that since the landfill closed in 1981, the site has become popular with birds and other wildlife. “Ecology organizations have already spent decades dealing with the tragic impacts of ill-conceived and poorly sited wind farms in eastern Alameda County,” Margulis said, referring to the fact that wind turbines in the Altamont Pass have killed untold numbers of birds over the years. “It makes no sense to construct a utility-scale solar farm over existing habitat areas occupied by myriad wildlife species on the bay’s edge to create a death hazard that will jeopardize even more wildlife who depend on Alameda’s remaining shoreline green areas for wintering and nesting habitat.”

Margulis also pointed out that burrowing owls have been known to make homes at Mount Trashmore within the last decade. 

Margulis said similar constraints exist at Alameda Point—another site that Bangert is proposing for solar—where a least tern colony and 15 other endangered species make their home. She said solar on homes or industrial and commercial buildings could “perhaps make sense” in carefully chosen locations.

City Manager Jill Keimach, who represents the city council on AMP’s board, said environmental impacts of a solar farm at Mount Rushmore wouldn’t be assessed until a defined project is on the table. “You can’t start an environmental assessment until you know how big it is and what it looks like,” she said. “But if Mount Trashmore is cost-effective, it’s something that’s going to be pursued.”

Ironically, cost-effective solar is a tricky proposition in Alameda and the rest of the Golden State. Solar generally doesn’t pencil out on a large scale in cities like Alameda, because many residents leave during the day. The Island’s energy use actually increases in the evening when there is no solar power being generated. Green energy experts say solar power won’t be fully cost-effective in bedroom communities and won’t become the dominant source of energy in California until it can be effectively stored in batteries or other storage systems for use when the sun isn’t shining.

Bill Barnes, of Union City-based Amber Kinetics, is testing flywheel energy storage systems at Alameda Point. He noted that because there is so much solar and wind power already on the market in California that isn’t being stored, energy prices decline during peak energy-generation periods. “Part of the issue is whether it’ll be economic to marry solar and storage,” Barnes said. He noted that flywheels and chemical batteries both store energy for four hours, but flywheels don’t degrade over time. “So flywheels have a distinct economic and operational advantage over chemical batteries.”

Barnes said Amber Kinetics’ flywheel systems are in “the commercial validation stage,” with orders from Hawaiian Electric, and energy companies in Africa, Canada, and Australia on the books. “We’re very excited about the possibilities, but also highly cognizant of the challenges AMP and other municipalities have,” he said, noting that flywheels take up space, and that insolation (solar radiation reaching given areas) can vary. “Alameda could be in the same latitude as Fresno, but because the weather here is cloudier and cooler, it would get less insolation,” he said.

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