Brown to Green

Renewable Energy on Disturbed Lands

Reusing polluted and contaminated lands to build wind and solar projects could prove to be a viable clean energy strategy, writes Tom Kenworthy.

Reusing worn-out farmland for renewable energy generation is one aspect of a growing movement to build wind, solar and other renewable projects on lands that are already disturbed or have been polluted, like this farm in Illinois. (AP/Mark Cowan)
Reusing worn-out farmland for renewable energy generation is one aspect of a growing movement to build wind, solar and other renewable projects on lands that are already disturbed or have been polluted, like this farm in Illinois. (AP/Mark Cowan)

Even at a time when plans for utility-scale solar electricity projects covering thousands of acres and producing nearly as much power as nuclear plants are becoming almost commonplace, the proposed Westlands Solar Park in California’s Central Valley is eye-popping big.

If Westlands is built at the scale its backers envision, it would cover 30,000 acres—nearly 47 square miles—with solar photovoltaic panels, or PV panels, and generate 5,000 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 1.5 million homes. Its size will mean both demand certainties for solar component manufacturers and greater cost efficiencies, predicts Daniel Kim, a principal with Westside Holdings, the firm planning the project. “No one has come up with a reason this is not doable,” he says.

The $15 billion Westlands project will not have to go through the time-consuming environmental reviews by state or federal agencies that many other large renewable projects face. In contrast to most of the other large solar projects moving forward in the desert Southwest that will be built on undeveloped federal lands, Westlands would use private farmland that has been taken out of commission because of salt contamination caused by irrigation. As a result, Westlands has the support of the environmental community because the land in question has little wildlife or conservation value, and is close to existing transmission lines that can handle at least the first phase of the project, about 400 megawatts.

Reusing worn-out farmland for renewable energy generation is one aspect of a growing movement to build wind, solar, and other renewable projects on lands that are already disturbed or have been polluted. These lands include landfills, abandoned mines, and contaminated industrial sites or brownfields, abandoned commercial sites that are polluted but less seriously than Superfund sites, which are uncontrolled or abandoned places where hazardous waste is located.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which has a program called Re-powering America’s Land, sees a huge potential in converting contaminated areas that run the gamut from small inner-city properties that could house a few solar panels, to sprawling Superfund sites that could be used for utility-scale solar or windm to reclaimed industrial sites for manufacturing wind and solar energy components.

The EPA estimates that there are more than 11,000 contaminated sites covering 15 million acres in the United States that have the potential to be used for generating solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal energy. The technical potential—without factoring in cost and other practical feasibilities—of these lands is immense: 920,000 megawatts from solar, 17,000 megawatts from wind, 50,000 megawatts from biomass, and 3,200 megawatts from geothermal. An EPA interactive website shows the potential for all 50 states.

A 2009 study by the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University found that Michigan alone has the capacity to generate 5,855 megawatts of wind and solar from brownfields. If fully developed, these projects could power almost half of Michigan’s homes, generate $15 billion in new investments, and create more than 16,000 construction jobs and nearly 700 permanent operations and maintenance jobs, according to the study.

“Forging a connection between renewable energy and brownfield redevelopment offers a new potential for Michigan,” the study concluded. The state has both an “abundance” of contaminated industrial and commercial sites as well as a mandate to generate 9 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2015. The study said making the connection is natural, in part because brownfields have few competing uses, are usually in areas with high energy demands and good grid connections, and are seen by the public as a high priority for redevelopment.

Land conservation and environmental organizations see renewable energy development on degraded lands as a means to minimize the kinds of disputes that often erupt when developers and government agencies seek to site projects on public lands that are valued for recreation and wildlife habitat. In a set of criteria developed as guidance for siting large renewable energy projects in California’s desert regions, 13 state and national environmental groups emphasized using previously disturbed areas as a means to “guide solar development to areas with comparatively low potential for conflict and controversy.”

“This looks like a win-win-win for folks” says David Moulton, director of climate change policy and conservation funding at The Wilderness Society, which has compiled fact sheets looking at state-by-state potential for clean energy developments and existing success stories. Along with the United States Conference of Mayors, the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups have supported efforts in Congress to provide incentives for renewable energy projects on brownfields.

Legislation introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) would allow utilities to earn triple credits for such projects in meeting the requirements of a national renewable energy standard approved by Congress. Thus, a 2 megawatt solar array would be counted as 6 megawatts. However, the total generation eligible for the credits could not exceed 1 percent of the overall renewable energy standard.

“I can go into any city in the United States and find a brownfield,” says Judy Sheahan, assistant executive director of the conference of mayors. “But there are no incentives in place right now to make utilities interested.”

Even without incentives, there are numerous examples of successful projects on disturbed lands:

  • In Lackawanna, New York, a 30-acre site that once housed a Bethlehem Steel plant but had been abandoned and contaminated for 30 years is now home to a small wind farm that will ultimately include 18 turbines generating 45 megawatts of clean power, enough for 9,000 homes.
  • A former coal mine near Casper, Wyoming has been redeveloped into a wind farm with 158 turbines that produce 237 megawatts of clean power, enough for nearly 67,000 homes.
  • In Pennsylvania, part of the old Philadelphia Navy Yard is being used for a 1.5-megawatt solar array, enough to power 1,800 homes.
  • At Fort Carson, a sprawling Army base in Colorado, a former 15-acre landfill is now home to a 2 megawatt solar array that produces 2.3 percent of the base’s annual energy consumption.
  • In Pennsylvania, the former U.S. Steel Fairless Works, a 2,400 acre brownfields site, has been repurposed with the help of state incentives into a renewable energy manufacturing center and now produces wind turbines and polysilicon used in solar panels.

The federal Department of Interior has so far concentrated on approving large renewable projects on big swaths of undisturbed federal land. Meanwhile, the Arizona office of the department’s Bureau of Land Management is using funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on an initiative to identify both private and public parcels that are contaminated or disturbed that could be used for redevelopment for renewable energy.

So far, the Restoration Design Energy Project has identified 59 candidate sites covering about 156,000 acres, including landfills, former mining operations, and brownfields.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar often discusses the need to ensure that federal clean energy initiatives, both offshore and onshore, are “smart from the start.” Maximizing opportunities to develop projects on degraded lands is a smart place to start.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Tom Kenworthy

Senior Fellow