Solar Turns Wasteland To Greener Land

Last Updated:
Fri, 2014-08-01 10:01

The deployment of solar energy on abandoned, contaminated land could be a match made in green economy heaven. While there are challenges involved in transforming these sites into suitable locations for renewable energy projects, there doesn’t seem to be much of a downside to making it happen. Environmentalists, renewable energy developers, government agencies, and local communities agree that the benefits abound.

Environmental Upside

Redeveloping contaminated land allows for more protection of untouched open space. The land on abandoned sites has already been disturbed and cleaning it up and reusing it presents very little risk, if any, to wildlife and natural habitats. Many of the sites are already in the process of being remediated and are using massive amounts of electricity from the grid to power the cleanup efforts. Solar power produced on these sites can be used to power the cleanup process or generate power for the grid. Solar photovoltaic panels are already being used to power ground water treatment systems on Superfund sites, including locations in California and Colorado.

Local Cooperation

The local community is generally supportive of renewable energy development on abandoned sites, as it streamlines cleanup, creates jobs, supports surrounding property values, increases tax revenue, and provides low-cost, clean power. A renewable energy project returns the site to a productive and sustainable community asset.

Many contaminated sites are already under the control of oversight agencies who are responsible for the safe cleanup of the site. These agencies offer valuable guidance and work in cooperation with developers to ensure the site is properly remediated and liabilities are managed. With all stakeholders collaborating toward a common goal, projects have an even greater chance of success.

Appeal for Developers

Renewable energy developers are attracted to the unique attributes on former industrial sites that can lower costs and shorten timelines. Existing infrastructure such as roads, transmission lines, substations, rail, and water can all save time and money on construction, as well as streamline the permitting process. Because the site is not suitable for many other uses, the developer may be able to acquire the land at a lower cost, chipping away at yet another development challenge – available capital. Incentives may also be available at federal, state, and local levels to promote cleanup and help offset the costs and limit liability. Contaminated sites do come with legal and technical challenges, making cooperation with oversight agencies and local government a critical factor in project success.

Emerging Federal Support

The EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Lands Initiative was launched in 2008 to encourage and support the reuse of contaminated sites for renewable energy projects. The EPA has invested approximately $1 million in cooperation with U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to evaluate the feasibility of developing renewable energy on Superfund, brownfields, and former landfill or mining sites.

The EPA and NREL conduct studies to identify sites with the greatest potential for different types of renewable energy, the optimal location, potential generating capacity, and return on investment. The EPA has identified more than 11,000 EPA tracked sites and nearly 15 million acres that have potential for development of solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal facilities. The EPA website contains various resources to guide governments and other stakeholders through the process of screening sites, assessing risk, managing liability, and facilitating remediation.

EPA Tracked Sites With Solar Potential

Paradigm Shift

As communities and developers focus more attention on the benefits of combining renewable energy deployment with environmental cleanup and land preservation, they will likely take another look at forgotten wastelands. There’s no question transforming a contaminated site requires extra planning and attention to legal and technical issues. But with the support of local communities and governmental agencies, the potential gains stand to far outweigh the risks. Who knows? Maybe innovative land redevelopment strategies will become the next trend in the growth of renewable energy.

By Amy Malloy

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