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Solar News

Contaminated Brownfield Sites and Solar Energy: A Bright Idea


Renewable energy, and solar in particular, are real solutions in solving the energy issues faced by the United States. However these resources take space, and lots of it. As the result, the problem of where to place all of these solar power plants has arisen. One solution is through the redevelopment of contaminated industrial sites. Brownfield land sites- abandoned industrial or commercial areas with ground contamination that has been determined to be non-hazardous, number over 400,000 sites in the US and cover approximately 15 million acres. Much of this land goes undeveloped for decades, because  the clean-up costs are prohibitively expensive so projects are done elsewhere. This results in slow economic growth in surrounding areas and increasing regional sprawl as new land is developed for commercial and industrial use.

But, what if there was a way these land sites could be developed with minimal cleanup effort and still be put to good use perhaps, say, with the implementation of solar projects? .According to Megawatt Solar, an energy developer of brownfield sites, when "compared to the high cost of remediating a Brownfield to standards required for development, installing a solar power-generating system is a highly economical and practical alternative for restoring the productivity of the site."

The Excelon Corporation is doing exactly that by developing mothballed Brownfield sites into urban solar power generating stations. With a 10 megawatt project in Chicago and a 1.4 MW project being developed in Philadelphia, they have developed what looks to be an economically viable and sustainable use of otherwise unused land.  The 39-acre Chicago project has lofty projections. According to Excelon's press release,

The project's 32,800 solar panels will convert the sun's rays into enough clean, reliable electricity to meet the annual energy requirements of 1,200 to 1,500 homes per year. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's system for calculating emissions savings, the installation will displace approximately 31.2 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually, the equivalent of taking more than 2,500 cars off the road or planting more than 3,200 acres of forest.

Meanwhile governments are ramping up policy initiatives for the sustainable redevelopment of Brownfield sites. Under federal legislation detailed in The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $100 million has been earmarked to the EPA's Brownfields and Land Revitalization Program "for clean up, revitalization, and sustainable reuse of contaminated properties." As well, state and municipal governments are providing tax initiatives both for Brownfield and renewable energy source developments. 

The Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University recently published a study showing that redeveloping Michigan's 44,000 acres of brownfield sites would create  investment opportunities of more than $15 billion, create 17,500 jobs, and power generation potential of 5000MW-enough energy to meet nearly 50% of the state's energy requirements. According to the study's director Soji Adelaja,

"The large number of Brownfield sites, combined with the state's generous incentives for Brownfields redevelopment, create a prime opportunity to expand Michigan's renewable energy capacity. Further, adapting such sites to renewable energy development does not require the costly environmental remediation necessary for other uses."

There are benefits of developing renewable energy projects on pre-existing commercial sites. According to the energy industry's journal Power, brownfield sites are environmentally and economically beneficial for renewable energy development because:

  • Brownfields generally have existing transmission capacity and infrastructure in place and adequate zoning.
  • Using brownfields takes the stress off undeveloped lands for construction of new energy facilities, preserving the land carbon sink.
  • Renewable energy projects provide an economically viable reuse for sites with significant cleanup costs or low real estate development demand.
  • These projects provide job opportunities in urban and rural communities.

Clearly the marriage of renewable energy projects to brownfield sites is a good match. The development opportunity of revenue generating energy projects on comparatively cheap real estate a sound investment. Coupled with government incentive programs to facilitate both renewable energy and brownfields site development, projects of this nature are poised to be profitable in both the short and long term while having a positive effect on two major environmental issues. Now that's a bright idea!  Keep your eyes out for brownfield energy redevelopment programs near you.