Old mining sites, contaminated farmlands and closed chemical facilities don’t offer much more than an eyesore. That was until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) saw the potential for redeveloping these brownfield sites into renewable energy facilities. The estimated 15 million acres of potentially contaminated lands can house an unfathomable amount of photovoltaic (PV) arrays, generating energy on land that is otherwise unusable. A solar power plant on an old landfill seems like a win-win situation. But it’s easier said than done.
Cleaning up a contaminated site improves the environmental quality of the area, while restoring community pride with an aesthetically pleasing and productive piece of land. Faced with liability uncertainties, permitting challenges and land-use ordinances, developers haven’t been overly anxious to construct clean energy facilities on brownfield sites. To encourage the reuse of contaminated lands for renewable energy projects, the EPA launched its RE-Powering America’s Lands Initiative in 2008. By offering incentives, technical advice, and assistance to local communities to identify potential sites through mapping and screening tools, the EPA has facilitated installations in 26 states.
An April 2013 update on the RE-Powering initiative reveals that more than 70 renewable energy projects have been completed on contaminated lands, combined with 99 projects in development for a total 217 megawatts of clean energy—a majority of which is solar PV. “Mining waste sites have been converted into solar arrays, abandoned industrial sites into wind farms, and closed landfills into solar farms,” the report states.
"When the EPA develops and announces a protocol to encourage alternative energy development on contaminated sites, states respond,” says environmental attorney Lanny Kurzweil of McCarter & English, LLP. “The potential liability regime has a very wide net, and the risk that a developer may become saddled with the cost of cleanup could easily affect the financing of a project.”
In December of 2012, the EPA amended the “polluter pays” CERCLA law to expand its “bona fide prospective purchaser” protection to more tenants who acquire ownership of a contaminated facility. The expanded liability protection hopes make the estimated 490,000 contaminated sites throughout the U.S. more attractive to clean energy developers.
From an old Florida refinery to an industrial park in New Mexico, the EPA and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have conducted feasibility studies for a number of contaminated properties across the nation. Recommendations have been based qualities such as existing electrical infrastructure, transmission capacity, industrial zoning and access to roads. The EPA’s Re-Powering program includes utility-scale and small-scale clean energy projects, with solar PV projects that range from a 10 kilowatt system on a landfill in Wisconsin to a 35 megawatt solar farm on “disturbed land” at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. But the New York facility pales in comparison to the anticipated 2,400 megawatt Westlands Solar Park in Kings County, California.
The Westlands Solar Park project would span about 24,000 acres of land contaminated by selenium and saline due to years of heavy irrigation. Although the master plan is in place, the details still need to be hammered out. "We've already done years of environmental analysis. Now it's managing the political process and understanding where the commercial interests are,” said Bob Dowds, CEO of Westside Holdings, which conducted the impact report. If development of the Westlands Solar Park begins this year as intended, 200 megawatts will be constructed annually for the next 12 years. This could generate enough electricity to power between 2.5 million and 4 million homes.
“We’re very interested in finding the least environmentally sensitive places to develop,” said Carl Zichella, Director of Western Renewable Energy Programs for the Sierra Club. “Early on, we felt Westlands had a lot of potential in this regard … it takes the pressure off of other lands that are more ecologically sensitive.”
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