Ridgefield planning board approves solar panels to facilitate composting system

RIDGEFIELD — The town is one step closer to establishing a closed-loop composting system on the grounds of the recycling center on South Street.

The Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously approved this week an application from Dwayne Escola to construct a 12-foot-by-14-foot ground-mounted solar array behind the facility. The panels will power an aerated static pile composting system that will soon be installed there.

The motion was passed with a condition allowing Escola to amend the site via screening or other technical methods should the panels create a public safety hazard after they’re installed.

Commissioner Susan Consentino, who suggested the amendment, said she was concerned about drivers traveling down the “sharp hill” on Old Quarry Road that could potentially be impacted by the sun’s reflection off the panels.

Commissioner John Katz noted, however, that its the panels’ “nature” to absorb sunlight, rather than reflect it.

Escola, who chairs Ridgefield’s Action Committee for the Environment, submitted the application on behalf of the town and the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority. The organization serves 14 municipalities in western Connecticut through waste management and recycling efforts.

Last fall, HRRA was awarded a more than $72,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The money is part of a nearly $2 million investment by the USDA to develop and implement municipal compost plans and food-waste reduction strategies nationwide.

The grant will support the authority in managing food waste locally and establishing a closed-loop/ASP composting system at the Ridgefield Recycling Center.

Residents currently bring their food scraps there to be transported to a local commercial processor, and the compost is returned in the spring. The solar-powered system is expected to reduce transportation costs as well as the region’s carbon footprint once installed, according to HRRA’s Executive Director Jennifer Heaton-Jones.

“We were one of the only (entities) in the northeast to receive the grant,” she told commissioners via Zoom.

In a closed-loop/ASP composting system, air is forced into a contained pile of food waste, which decomposes the scraps without emitting fumes into the atmosphere. The process accelerates the decomposition process by mimicking what nature does at a quicker pace, breaking down whole foods in 30 days.

“A lot of people do compost in their own yards … but there are a lot of people who don’t, and this is an opportunity to bring your organics to the recycling center,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “If we can get people trained to take (their) food scraps and put them in a separate container (to be composted), it’s a huge step forward.”

The grant will also cover public education and outreach over a two-year period. The authority plans to partner with RACE to inform consumers about the importance of preventing food waste and donating food to local churches, food pantries and community shelters.

Moreover, the project will increase access to compost for residents, garden groups and local farmers, eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers and further reducing the region’s carbon footprint.

“I think everyone agrees it’s a great project,” Commissioner Joseph Sorena said.

Although there is currently a $2 fee to recycle organics at the center, Marconi’s “short-term objective” is to remove the charge once the system is up and running.

“We’ll have to look at revenues and see what we can do,” he said.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com