The U.S. EPA has launched a program to push to recover brownfields for renewable energy generation. The initiative, called RE-Powering America’s Land (pdf alert), is focusing on solar energy, wind and biomass projects that provide local economic benefits in the form of new jobs. In doing so, RE-Powering pulls together five powerful trends: the use of low cost “green remediation,” the repurposing of brownfields to revitalize blighted communities, the generation of energy locally instead of building expensive new power plants, the promotion of green jobs, and the development of genuinely clean, renewable energy options for communities that refuse to tolerate new fossil fuel energy facilities.
Surely RE-PAL can’t be an accidental (though unofficial) acronym for a program like this, so let’s give our new best friend a shout-out. The program is kicking off with a study of twelve sites spread across the U.S. including one in Puerto Rico, but in fact it’s been flying under the radar on an ad hoc basis for a while now, racking up some impressive brownfields-to-energy credits along the way.
RE-Powering America’s Land and Clean Energy
RE-Powering has teamed up with NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, to look for innovative, community based alternatives to fossil fuels. They’ve targeted brownfields, which are typically former industrial sites that may (or may not, as is often the case) contain contaminants. Many of these are ideal for renewable energy projects because they are already zoned appropriately and they include critical infrastructure such as transmission lines, roads, and water. Certain Superfund sites may be usable, though that would depend on the cleanup potential. Former mines and landfills are also potential candidates. Though apparently not included in the program, EPA will provide the site assessment and remediation expertise, and the twelve sites included in RE-Powering’s study include a mix of properties in various stages of the cleanup. They’ll be assessing and screening the sites to determine which would make a cost-effective home for renewable energy projects.
Brownfields and Renewable Energy
If the RE-Powering approach seems like a common sense solution, that’s because it’s already happening. Renewable energy installations are popping up in some unlikely places, including solar installations at sewage treatment plants. In the case of brownfields, one thing pushing the trend along is the development of new low cost remediation methods that use pollutant sucking plants or specialized bacteria that destroy contaminants on site, instead of digging the soil out and trucking it to a landfill. In some cases, the renewable energy installation even powers equipment needed for site cleanup. Four examples cited by the EPA are the eight wind turbines built on a slag heap in New York State that produce enough electricity for 7,000 homes; the two megawatt thin film solar array on a former landfill at Fort Carson; the low cost rooftop solar panels at a Superfund site in California that power a groundwater treatment system; and the 2.3 megawatt solar array in Colorado that produces electricity for water reclamation. The Colorado site also a new clean energy innovation center focusing on solar, biomass and geothermal.
Communities and Clean Energy
Conservation is a good thing but it can only slow, not reverse, the increasing demand for electricity that comes with population growth, the gadget explosion, and wild cards like a mass switch to electric vehicles. According to the EPA, the U.S. will need to build the equivalent of more than 320 coal fired power plants to meet the demand by 2030. The coal plants themselves are clearly out because nobody wants those things in their backyard, so-called “clean coal” or not. That puts the ball in the renewable energy court, which puts us in a spot because right now coal supplies about half the nation’s electricity and renewables provide less than 3%. The growing force of private investment in clean energy along with federal incentives is rapidly bringing that number up, but a deciding factor is going to be the willingness of local communities to host new solar arrays and other renewable energy plants.
Image: Industrial skyline by Bob Jagendorf on flickr.com.
Update: This post has been edited to reflect EPA’s preference for the nickname “RE-Powering.”
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.