Greentech for Brown Lands0

Paul Hagey | Thu Sep 8 2011

Scientists around the world have started to reclaim land contaminated by the use of nuclear materials—for example, India is growing sunflowers to remove radionuclides from the soil and water. In much the same way, wind turbines, solar arrays, and other renewable energy technologies are beginning to re-energize some of America’s most damaged lands.

By 2030, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that electricity production will need to increase by nearly 30 percent to meet growing demand. During that same timespan, green energy—which currently supplies only 4 percent of America’s electricity needs—is anticipated to grow more than 70 percent.

As demand for sustainable energy sources rises, sites deemed too contaminated offer a strategic alternative for land-intensive renewable energy projects, helping to preserve the nation’s greenfields as parkland, agriculture, and open space.

Of the contaminated land the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors, 11,000 sites and 15 million acres are deemed potential wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal green energy fields.

Using these wastelands in such a way takes advantage of their existing infrastructure like transmission lines and substations, appropriate zoning, and strong community support for redevelopment.

Building the resources

In September 2008, the EPA launched the RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative to encourage green energy project development on the country’s marred lands.

The initiative provides technical support and evaluation of potential project sites. For example, to help interested developers locate possible sites, the EPA developed a Google Earth mapping tool that plots the locations and types of contaminated lands with the most renewable energy development promise.

“I had to shout out from the rooftops for this,” says Gail Mosey, senior energy analyst at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). The NREL works with the EPA on siting potential lands for renewable energy projects. “It makes so much sense,” she said. “If there’s a site that’s going to be used for nothing else, because it can’t, why not put renewable energy on top of it?”

Growing success

Thus far, wind and solar fields are the most popular green energy projects for contaminated land.

Interest in damaged land renewable energy development is taking off, says John Hanselman, managing principal of Brightfields Development LLP, a company founded in 2008 that specializes in solar energy projects on contaminated lands.

Currently, Brightfields is working on six utility-scale projects, including a 3.6 megawatt solar array for a capped landfill in Scituate, Massachusetts, which will be the largest solar facility in New England.

These projects represent the true promise of marginalized-land redevelopment.

The EPA helped in the original siting of the project. When it’s done, Brightfields will sell the power to the city of Scituate and receive renewable energy credits from Massachusetts, which will be sold to satisfy the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard.

In 2007, Steel Winds, a wind-energy project on the breezy shores of Lake Erie in the City of Lackawanna, New York, reclaimed the land of a once-thriving Bethlehem Steel mill. Before the project, the abandoned mill languished for 30 years, another example of rustbelt stagnation.

BQ Energy, now Apex Wind, erected eight 2.5-megawatt Clipper Windpower-manufactured wind turbines that produce 20 megawatts of electricity. Ten more turbines are planned for the site. The wind power connects to the energy grid from the mill’s original transmission lines.

“It’s been a win-win situation,” says Lackawanna Director of Economic Development Ralph Miranda. Along with a few new jobs, the city receives $100,000 yearly from Apex Wind each year for another dozen years.

These projects represent the true promise of marginalized-land redevelopment: existing infrastructure, nearby energy demand, appropriate zoning and community support.

Not all sunflowers

Developing these potentially contaminated sites, however, poses challenges.

Some matters, like cleantech worker safety, have been addressed by the case-by-case design of the EPA’s initiative. For some sites, contamination is no longer an issue; on others, necessary safeguards would be taken to protect operators.

Other challenges are more daunting. America lacks a federal renewable portfolio energy standard, which prompts hesitation from energy developers considering an investment in expensive renewable energy technology. And some features of contaminated land add to investor insecurity, like the possible obligation for continuing storm water and contaminant treatment.

Some of these issues have been addressed. Since 2008, all states have liability protections for new owners and lessees not responsible for a site’s original contamination.

A green future for brown lands

Green power is no doubt an important part of America’s march toward energy security and independence, as well as a sustainable path to a healthy global climate. As demand for limited greenspace increases, it’s likely that businesses and government will continue to use contaminated lands for renewable energy projects.

Illustration by Gracia Lam