One conflict that has plagued the renewable energy industry is that wind farms and solar arrays require a lot of public space. But what if that space was previously neglected, unused and going to waste? Recently, renewable energy developers have begun building on abandoned or contaminated sites unfit for traditional commercial or industrial reuse. The reclamation of these brownfields satisfies the industry’s need for space (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are about 500,000 sites on 15 million acres across the country) and requires less money than getting a permit and breaking ground on a new site.
Brownfields are located in both urban and rural environments, and are usually old mines, landfills or industrial or commercial factories that are contaminated and left unused. These abandoned sites are not only aesthetically unappealing, but the land is going to waste. The cost of cleaning up a site contaminated with pollutants for commercial development is expensive and time-exhaustive. According to the EPA, there are less expensive cleanup techniques that can allow for a safe containment of the contamination within a property. While this practice isn’t suitable for a retail property, the EPA claims it is safe and acceptable for workers.
Solar and wind developers have begun to focus on brownfield projects because the land is cheap and the power infrastructure is already in place, keeping startup costs down. This also makes transferring the generated energy onto the grid for utility companies, or retail providers in deregulated areas such as New York, to eventually supply to customers a much simpler task. Using these unwanted and unused spaces for the creation of sustainable energy is a unique application of the green philosophy of “reuse.” So far, brownfield reclamation projects have been successful in urban and rural areas, with none of the protest many renewable energy sites have faced.
About a year ago, New Jersey’s largest utility provider, Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G), began working on installing 4,000 solar panels at the Hackensack Solar Farm, a 6-acre lot that was once a gas manufacturing plant. The company predicts the solar farm will eventually provide power to about 200 homes, and in the meantime it creates cleanup, production, installation and maintenance jobs at the site. PSE&G has turned two other brownfields into solar farms, and estimates it has created 1,100 jobs.
Arizona has also taken advantage of otherwise unusable land to install solar farms. According to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study, Arizona has the third best combination of land area and resource potential for solar power development in the United States. Gila Bend was once a successful farming town, but the land became infertile as salinity levels rose due to desert irrigation. The town has been revived as a thriving solar energy zone, all on what would otherwise be wasted land.
Some major cities have reconsidered the use of their brownfield sites, including Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, giving previously unwanted real estate new market and environmental value. In New York City, more than 250 acres are now available for sun-powered installations, and according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this land could produce up to 50 megawatts of solar power. This would be enough to supply electricity to 50,000 homes during the summer.
Wind activists are also utilizing the open space of brownfields to install renewable energy generators, particularly around abandoned mine lands (AMLs). These lands are often located in areas that aren’t reasonable for traditional commercial or industrial reuse. However, the requirements for a suitable wind farm and the characteristics of an AML are quite similar, most notably that AMLs are often located in mountainous areas that receive consistent wind flows. Now, sites once used to extract resources for brown electricity can be rebuilt as sites for green electricity.
Brownfield initiatives are an ideal blend of renewable energy development with an understanding of the reality of limited available space. The practice is growing in popularity, and may present the future of sustainable energy production.
Ben Barnes is a graduate student with experience in the energy sector. His work concentrates on efforts to increase the sustainability of renewable energy sources and reduce the carbon footprint in the world we live in.