Brownfields Can Reduce Pressure on Sensitive Lands

solar system in Colorado

Dave Parsons

There has been a lot of attention paid to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lately with many unfounded attacks on their efforts to keep our air healthy and water safe to drink. What you may not know is the EPA has also been hard at work promoting our clean energy future at the same time. Yesterday, assistant EPA Administrator Mathy Stanislaus shared the story of the agency’s Repowering America program in an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

For more than five years the EPA, in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has been hard at work identifying “brownfields” — former trade and industrial centers, that have since fallen into disrepair — that could have solar, wind or geothermal facilities sited on them. As we have argued in previous posts, cleaning up contaminated lands and reusing them for renewable energy development means less pressure to develop natural areas and open space, and also means less need for new transmission lines and rights-of-way. It is a rare win-win-win for lands, communities and advocates of a clean energy future.

We know efforts to move the nation to a more sustainable energy future means doing things differently than we have in the past. It means making our buildings and industry more energy efficient. It means covering private parking lots and public rooftops—even California’s aqueducts—with solar cells. Energy experts from the Rocky Mountain Institute to the Western Grid Group forecast transformative investments in new energy infrastructure, from community scale wind projects to large geothermal and solar facilities.  And these experts are clear- there is no single solution.

Even conservative projections from Rocky Mountain Institute – the inventors of the “negawatt” – call for major changes in utility scale generation, concluding that major build out will occur especially for solar power: “Concentrating solar power, which uses mirrors and lenses to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a collector to heat a working fluid and then drive a conventional steam turbine, will also grow to 35 GW of installed capacity by 2050.”

For our part, we are working on policies to make sure that new energy development treads as lightly as possible on the landscape.  We know huge potential exists to do more with the power we already generate. We also know that because it has the smallest footprint on the landscape, saving energy saves lands.

Distributing renewable energy on places we’ve already built out, like brownfields, has excellent effects on lands, communities and our country’s clean energy prospects. We especially want to see a focus on degraded lands that could reduce pressure on sensitive public lands.

Previous writers have talked about the development of degraded lands from Philadelphia to Michigan to Colorado.  Our research shows more than 7,000 of these sites are in California alone.  And we have worked with Senator Lautenberg to jumpstart this kind of investment in a national energy standard by giving extra credit for power sited on recycled lands.

Our public lands will also play a role in this transition, but we have to find the right places for development. Recent polling reminds us that Americans care deeply about conserving our natural heritage. We know we don’t have to choose between protecting wild spaces and tapping renewable resources, but our old policies for building energy are simply not up to task. That is why we are heavily engaged in the Interior Department’s efforts to finalize a plan for solar energy development on our public lands that guides projects to low-conflict zones.

To move our country ahead, we need to be thinking beyond the next project and instead focus on putting policies in place that will manage the renewable energy investment that is going to come our way. Efforts like EPA’s Repower America initiative and the Interior Department’s efforts are critical to fitting it all in. By working together to strike a balance, we can protect our valued and unique open spaces and simultaneously meet the demand for clean energy.