Hoping to make some green out of going green, Annapolis officials are weighing an ambitious plan to convert an old municipal dump into a "renewable energy park" that would generate enough electricity to supply all of the power the state capital consumes, using landfill gas, yard waste and the sun's rays for fuel.
The City Council is expected to vote soon on an agreement with a Linthicum-based business group to produce electricity on 500 acres of city-owned land near Parole. The project could net the city up to $750,000 a year in revenue and savings while demonstrating a variety of renewable-energy technologies, proponents say.
As a bonus, a little-used public park next to the former landfill would be improved, creating an arboretum-like native plant garden in the meadows and woods surrounding the city's old reservoir.
"We want to make this into a real national model of something you can do with problem properties," said Bob Agee, the city administrator.
Agee contends that if the project succeeds in generating enough electricity to meet the demand of the city's residents, businesses and government offices, Annapolis could become the first truly carbon-neutral municipality in the country.
Environmentalists note that being carbon-neutral involves offsetting greenhouse gases produced by all human activity, including cars and trucks, and not just from electricity generation. Still, they applaud the city's bid to go "grid-neutral," as one put it.
'Pretty good stuff'
"This is pretty good stuff, definitely novel and ambitious," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who relies on renewable energy to supply almost all the electricity, heat and cooking for his Takoma Park household.
Cities and towns across Maryland and the nation are moving to tap alternative or renewable sources of energy. Several local governments are selling the methane generated by their landfills, while others are installing solar panels.
Laurel recently struck a deal to begin converting some of the municipal garbage it collects into electricity, ultra-low-sulfur diesel, gasoline and jet fuel.
'Ahead of the curve'
But none of those efforts matches the capital city's plan.
"Annapolis is kind of ahead of the curve," said Christina Twomey, spokeswoman for the Maryland Energy Administration.
For Agee, the energy park represents an opportunity to turn one of the city's headaches into an example of environmental responsibility - all while boosting the city's bottom line.
"In essence, this is a problem property," the city administrator said as he drove last week across the grassy top of the old landfill. Though no household trash has been disposed of there for decades, he said, the city must spend about $180,000 a year cutting the grass and monitoring for groundwater contamination and for leaking methane from decomposed, buried trash. Pipes poke out of the ground here and there, conduits for venting the flammable gas. Solar-powered igniters burn it as it escapes into the air.
On one side of the man-made hill, the city still spreads yard waste and ground-up woody debris collected from residents and municipal landscaping. Decades' worth of dumping old branches have created problems with water draining off the landfill and eroding the hillside, Agee said.
"It is the single biggest solid-waste problem for local governments in the region," the administrator said of handling fallen leaves, grass clippings and tree limbs.
Determined to turn a liability into an asset, the city invited developers to lay out proposals for converting the old landfill to energy generation and for making it an environmental showplace.
From eight initial inquiries, city officials narrowed the field to two bidders and recently settled on Aerotropolis Renewable Energy Group, led by Heffner & Weber Cos. of Linthicum.
Under the plan, about 150 acres atop the landfill would be covered with photovoltaic panels capable of generating 15 to 20 megawatts of electricity, according to Harvey Gershman of the Fairfax, Va., consulting firm that helped the city evaluate proposals.
The other major source of energy would come from burning wood chips and other yard waste in a large furnace, Gershman said. Similar "biomass" incinerators are used to generate power in other localities.
Annapolis hopes its facility will be able to attract enough wood waste from outside the city to be capable of generating up to 20 megawatts of electricity, he said.
Agee said an independent study indicates that hundreds of thousands of tons of wood waste are generated annually from land-clearing, tree-trimming and other refuse cleanup in the Baltimore-Washington area.
The deal the council has been asked to approve would generate $370,000 a year in rent, plus 1 percent of gross revenue generated by the project. And by having the developer take over maintenance of the landfill and yard-waste recycling, the city expects to save another $250,000 a year.
Besides generating electricity, the park is to serve as a public demonstration of renewable energy technologies, with an old brick pump house to be converted into an education center.
The plan also envisions the developer building more paths and cultivating native plants in Waterworks Park, which envelops the city's old 14-acre reservoir. The man-made lake now is used by art classes and a smattering of anglers who pay for permits to catch and release bass, crappie and perch.
"It's an absolutely beautiful place," said Walter "Tiny" Rose, a retired carpenter from Millersville, as he sat casting his line into the water.
Bid runner-up protests
The project is not without controversy. The runner-up in bidding, Seven Seas Energy of Annapolis, has protested, saying that its plan for the park was more highly rated by the committee reviewing bids. Talks are reportedly under way to resolve the dispute.
The council is scheduled to take up the deal Monday. Though some council members have questioned the process under which the park developer was chosen, there appears to be broad support for the renewable-energy project.
Joshua Cohen, the Democratic mayor -elect, said he supports the park, mainly because of the revenue and savings it is expected to generate. For Alana Wase of the Sierra Club, the park's dual role as a renewable-energy generator and nature park is what distinguishes it.
"It's not only going to generate renewable energy that the city is going to be able to use," said Wase, "but it's going to be educational and inviting for town residents to come and spend the day."