EPA Targets Former Brownfields for Solar Energy

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, announced its continuing commitment to develop renewable technologies like solar energy on contaminated, or “brownfield”, sites around the nation.

The lands in question, which include current and former Superfund sites, brownfields, and former landfill or mining sites, are ideal uses for land that doesn’t qualify for development as housing, retail, corporate or open space. That is, the land is cleaned up, or remediated, sufficiently to allow people to walk on it, or occasionally build factories on it, but building homes, offices, retail sites, sports fields or even camping and recreational areas is out of the question due to lingering contamination caused by such hazardous and regulated chemicals and substances as lead, asbestos, mercury, chromium, perchlorethylene, halogenated cleaning solvents, and some compounds used to make plastic.

According to EPA estimates, there are about 490,000 such sites across the country, comprising almost 15 million acres. Of these, 917,000 acres have been “cleaned up”, and agreements put in place with state, regional and Native American tribal agencies to reuse the lands for renewable energy.

A prime example would be Rifle, Colorado, where Union Carbide Corporation once operated a uranium mine. Contamination from this mining operation, which ran from 1958 through 1972, consisted of radioactive tailings, or leftovers, from that mining operation.

Eventually, the site was remediated – that is, groundwater cleaned up and water monitoring instituted, though radioactivity still contaminates some soil – and title transferred to the City of Rifle (2004). The best use for the land was deemed to be a solar photovoltaic installation, and in December of 2008 SunEdison, LLC began construction of a 1.72-megawatt solar PV array, with another 0.60 solar array nearby that powers the pumps for the Rifle drinking water facility.

Since their inception, these two solar energy systems have produced more than 4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity to run drinking water and wastewater facilities, and saved the citizens of Rifle about $2 million in electricity costs.

Another success story, in Davis, California, involves a former fertilizer and pesticide manufacturing and storage facility that saw the installation of a 5.7-kilowatt solar photovoltaic energy system to power a treatment plant that continually cleans up the contaminated groundwater.

The contamination results not from fertilizer and pesticide production but from the former companies dumping unused product in a 4,000-cubic-foot basin on the property – a practice that eventually led to seriously contaminated water supplies in the area’s water table.

The corporate pollution allowed under former administrations is a sad fact of politics, but the reuse of these contaminated acres to create clean, renewable solar energy (or wind and biomass power) seems a wiser choice than taking arable farmland out of circulation.

Author: Jeanne Roberts

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Posted in: Solar Policy

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