Building on Successes: More Renewable Energy Projects on Brownfields

Once again, the national brownfields conference was the place to see and be seen for those who take a keen interest in flipping contaminated sites to be reused for parks, real estate development, and other community improvements.   

At The Wilderness Society, we think “brownfields”—former industrial sites, abandoned gas stations, marginal agricultural land, and other sites—are ideal for renewable energy facilities.  Building solar and wind farms on places already impacted by human development not only helps stimulate local communities and clean up blight, but can redirect renewable energy development away from sensitive lands.

Luckily the benefits of building renewables on brownfields and other disturbed areas is beginning to take root—this year’s conference had numerous panel discussions and issue related sessions devoted to sharing challenges, successes, and next steps for redeveloping our brownfields into clean energy sources.  Cities like New Bedford, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Greenfield, Massachusetts all have small, local solar projects finished or under construction, and are leading the visionary charge.

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency, with its RE-Powering America’s Lands Initiative, is helping cities, states, and counties with a new form of technical assistance.  The agency will be selecting approximately 20 communities with brownfields for feasibility studies to understand what kind of technology might be best for the sites, project economics, and other details.  

One issue that took center stage at the conference was how to drive more investment to this idea so that we can see more projects come to fruition.  Classic financial incentives for renewable energy, like tax credits and “renewable energy credits” towards various state renewable energy standards, were described as essential to project success.  And, without a national renewable energy standard, developers can’t count on a strong investment environment and therefore aren’t interested in putting money towards innovative projects including those on contaminated sites like brownfields.  More than once, I heard pleas for a comprehensive and consistent American energy policy.  With sound policy we can see some of America’s eye sores become the home to domestic, clean energy in America.

As Mathy Stanislaus, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response put it at the conference, “siting clean energy on contaminated properties is part of the President’s clean energy agenda.”  We are anxious to help the President’s achieve his clean energy agenda by supporting renewable energy projects in places that make perfect sense— next month, Chevron will be unveiling solar panels on its molybdenum mine in Questa, New Mexico.

We’ll be at the Questa ribbon cutting to show our support for projects that take degraded lands and use them for clean energy production.  But for more of these projects to occur, we need an immediate, smart energy policy that favors renewable energy over dirty, polluting fossil fuels. We’re counting on those on Capitol Hill to help clear that path forward.