Renewing lands with renewables

The Fort Carson landfill with solar development in CO is an example of brownfield development. Photo by ArmyEnvironmentalUpdate.

The Wilderness Society has been working hard to ensure that renewable energy facilities are only built on lands that are free from wildlife, habitat, and other conflicts. Part of this work is identifying “brownfields” — former trade and industry centers that have since fallen into disrepair — that could have solar, wind, or geothermal facilities sited on them. Siting renewable energy on brownfields has excellent effects on lands, communities, and our country’s clean energy prospects.

Now, Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey, along with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, has introduced an exciting new bill called the “Cleanfields Act of 2010.” This bill is the first of its kind that would reward utilities and renewable energy developers for selecting brownfields for their projects. And, it accomplishes this incentive without the use of any federal funds!

We are very supportive of this bill, as it demonstrates one way in which to guide renewable energy to the right places. We want to make sure that our special places are not threatened by large renewable energy facilities, as they have high conservation, recreation, and scenic values that in some cases could be jeopardized by such large projects. Prioritizing contaminated lands like brownfields for renewable energy development is important because these sites generally have very little ecological or conservation value. As old locations for industry, manufacturing, or commerce, brownfields generally lay idle and abandoned — eyesores for the communities around them.

The Cleanfields Act is designed to use private money to clean up these sites and to site renewable energy on them by way of the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES). Under an RES, utilities are required to generate a certain percentage of energy from renewables by a certain date—the Wilderness Society supports a strong RES that would require utilities to produce 25% renewable energy by 2025. Under the RES, utilities receive “renewable energy credits” for generating renewable energy. The Cleanfields Act allows utilities to receive triple the amount of renewable energy credits for generating renewable energy on a brownfield site. This helps utilities meet their RES requirements, but also steers those renewable energy projects to places that are already disturbed.

As you can imagine, this bill is a win-win for many different groups. Conservation groups, like us, are supportive, as it helps make sure our lands remain pristine and free from energy development in inappropriate places. Groups that work on brownfields redevelopment, like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, are also supportive , as the bill helps leverages private funds to clean up brownfields, which are constantly underfunded. In fact, the Conference of Mayors has determined that only about 850,000 acres of brownfields have been cleaned up, versus the 15 million acres that are potentially contaminated. And, there are already a number of success stories of renewable energy built on brownfields!

We think this bill is a great way to start helping renewable energy development get built more frequently on brownfields. We must use our dirty industrialized past to move towards our clean energy future, and the Cleanfields Act is one way to do just that.

photo: The Fort Carson landfill with solar development in CO is an example of brownfield development. Photo by Army Environmental Update, Flickr.