Renewable energy belongs best on brownfields

Steel Winds turbines, New York. Courtesy Department of Environmental Conservation.

One of the most exciting things about working on renewable energy issues in a land conservation organization is that every day we wade deep into the policies that will impact our public lands for decades to come. Our energy team works hard to support the nation’s shift to clean, renewable energy. At the same time, it’s important to us that the impacts of solar, wind, and geothermal facilities on our precious landscapes are kept to a minimum.

We’ve been advocating for what I think is a really cool idea: developing renewable energy on brownfields instead of undeveloped green, natural areas.

Brownfields are patches of land that have previously been used for industrial purposes and may have been contaminated by a hazardous substance or pollutant. They are commonly old industrial sites, former military bases, or deserted factories or commercial buildings. Many brownfields lay abandoned and idle. Developing energy on these neglected sites is a resourceful way to kill two birds with one stone, essentially using our polluted past to get to our clean future.

All told, there are approximately 480,000 brownfield sites and almost 15 million acres of potentially contaminated properties across the United States. In conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Lab, the Environmental Protection Agency — charged with tracking these sites and overseeing their cleanups — has found nearly 4,100 sites with potential for redevelopment with renewable energy generation. If you have Google Earth on your computer, you can play around on the brownfields and renewable energy map with the EPA’s nifty Google Earth tool.

In addition to the fact that prioritizing renewable energy development on disturbed lands helps keep our intact lands healthy, we like this idea because cleaning up brownfields improves community wellbeing, relieves local tax burdens, encourages development, and enriches the surrounding environment.

Brownfields often already have existing electrical and transmission capacity and are zoned for industrial uses — making them ideal to build on. These are the reasons the U.S. Conference of Mayors joined us in signing an open letter to the committees of Congress working to pass comprehensive energy legislation, calling for these opportunities to be incentivized.

Not to mention, this idea has already been put into action successfully. The Steel Winds wind farm in Lackawanna, N.Y., was built on 30 acres once occupied by Bethlehem Steel. The site has been redeveloped with 8 wind turbines that could power 9,000 homes.

Fort Carson landfill solar development, Colorado. Photo by Army Environmental Update, Courtesy Flickr.“We were the old Rust Belt, with all the negatives. Right now, we are progressive and we are leading the way,” said Norman Polanksi Jr., the mayor of Lackawanna and a former steel worker who lost his job when the industry shut down.

Another example is the Fort Carson Landfill Solar Development near Colorado Springs, Colo. This solar array was built on 12 acres of a former landfill, and generates about 3200 megawatt hours of energy per year, helping the city of Fort Collins, Colo., to meet its energy needs.

photos:
Steel Winds turbines, New York. Courtesy Department of Environmental Conservation.
Fort Carson landfill solar development, Colorado. Photo by Army Environmental Update, Courtesy Flickr.

Comments