What does renewable energy have to do with contaminated lands? These two seemingly separate issues can be combined to have a symbiotic solution. Contaminated lands include brownfields, superfund sites, mining sites, and landfills, among others. These lands are generally large open spaces but will often remain empty because the potential contamination prevents redevelopment. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified these types of land as promising for the development of renewable energy projects and launched its RE-Powering America’s Land program.
There are numerous reasons to site renewable energy projects on contaminated lands. For instance, they often have an existing infrastructure which can be used to reduce the cost of development. The cost of these vacant lands are also generally very low because of their status as contaminated. Another major advantage is the protection of open space lands. Large-scale renewable energy projects often require large amounts of open land, which is often hard to come by and is sometimes protected.
Landfills are a particularly viable option for solar installations because the land has already been cleared and generally cannot be used for other types of commercial development. Closed landfills are those that have been covered and are also monitored for leaching and groundwater contamination. A closed landfill creates a large, open space where installed solar would not need to compete with other productive uses, such as agriculture. In addition, closed landfills are generally located away from environmentally sensitive ecosystems. Most landfills are designed to be easily accessible, and most have security systems installed, reducing the need to build new infrastructure.
Communities with contaminated lands see an enormous benefit from converting vacant or underutilized land into a clean source of energy. Renewable energy projects also serve to create jobs and stimulate the local tax base. The EPA’s findings state, “communities, private site-owners, and consumers have saved millions of dollars in energy costs, created construction jobs, and received new property tax revenue as a result of reusing these sites for renewable energy.”
In Lackawanna, NY, a former steel production site was converted into a 35-MW wind installation after 20 years of vacancy. This development has generated $190,000 in annual tax revenues for local communities and school districts and created 140 construction jobs. A 42-acre landfill Superfund site in New Jersey was leased to a solar developer, who paid the township $2.5 million for a 15-year lease. The 7-MW solar facility provides all of the electricity needs of the township’s government and sells the extra to the grid. Once the 15-year lease terminates the township will assume ownership of the solar field, which will provide free electricity to the township, resulting in $500,000 to $600,000 in savings per year.
These are just a few of many success stories. In Virginia, there are approximately 20 brownfields alone that are currently for sale across the state. Additionally, there are approximately 30 closed landfills. One of these, the Prince William Landfill, has decided to install solar panels on its property, which will produce approximately 1.5 MW of electricity, which could be used to power 5,000 homes. The former Ivy landfill in Albemarle County, Virginia, is moving forward with a negotiation for a 25-year lease to install a solar energy array. This potential solar farm could power about 1,000 homes and would be installed on 10-14 acres. At the Virginia Brownfields Conference in March 2017, it was noted that 28 landfills had been screened for solar. No other contaminated lands in the Commonwealth have been revitalized in this way. With the proper incentives, Virginia could greatly benefit from converting contaminated lands into productive renewable energy projects.