Juice from Junk Sites

Some brownfields are ripe for producing renewable energy.

By Linda McIntyre

Steel Winds, Lackawanna, New York, Apex Wind Energy

Redeveloping brownfield sites can take a lot of time and money. But sometimes contaminated land can be put to good use during, or even before, the cleanup is finished.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is promoting the installation of renewable energy infrastructure on brownfields, abandoned mine sites, Superfund sites, and landfills. The agency’s RE-Powering Initiative has identified more than 11,000 sites that add up to almost 15 million acres of land with the potential to host solar, wind, biomass, or geothermal installations.

Renewable energy projects, which can generate opposition in their own right, can be easier to build in these areas. In a recent podcast discussing the program, Mathy Stanislaus, the assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, noted that the sites the EPA is focusing on for this program are often already located near important infrastructure such as roads, electrical lines, and water pipes, and they are usually already zoned to allow utility-type uses.

The initiative started in 2008, but the EPA has developed more tools to help landowners and communities determine whether their site would be a good fit for this kind of project. Most recently, the agency has released a handbook for siting projects and created decision trees for solar and wind projects. The materials are based on data and experience collected from more than 50 projects that have already been built. More than 450 participants, including representatives from nonprofits, states, and local governments, logged into two recent webinars on using the new solar and wind tools.

Among these are one of the biggest solar facilities in the United States, on a Superfund site at a molybdenum mine in Questa, New Mexico; also a wind operation at a former steel mill on the banks of Lake Erie that produces enough energy to power about 9,000 homes; less-expensive electricity for groundwater cleanup on remote parts of an Arizona Superfund site; and a landfill gas operation at a California Superfund site.

This seems like an idea whose time has come—the EPA gets inquiries about the program from developers and communities every day. You can find more information, including the handbook, decision tree tools, details of existing projects, and a guide to federal and state incentives for this kind of redevelopment here.

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