If you take all the abandoned and classified former industrial sites and dumps across the U.S. and add them together, you get 14 million acres of cheap, available land that could be used as sites for new solar installations and wind farms. Right now the U.S. EPA is pushing forward with just such a plan, with the National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) helping to assess brownfields and Superfund sites for renewable energy. The program is called Re-Powering America’s Land. It also has a green jobs angle, through Recovery Act funding. Many of the potential sites are located in or near existing communities and could provide new jobs for local residents.
But wait, there’s more. In addition to providing new green jobs and clean energy for local use or the wider grid, the program also focuses on green remediation, which uses renewable energy to power equipment used for site cleanup. When you add that up – harvesting clean energy from land that is blighted and usable for not much else, while creating jobs and restoring the site, you gotta wonder why anybody would want to continue blowing up America’s mountains, compromising our water supply, and destroying the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of fossil fuels.
Reclaiming Land for Renewable Energy
Among the 14 million acres of classified land in the U.S., conditions at the sites can vary widely. Along with brownfields and Superfund sites, EPA and NREL are also looking at land classified under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. That means the sites can range from individual abandoned factories with little or no hazardous materials involved, to part of a toxic stew that blights an entire region, such as the Hazleton area in Pennsylvania which includes the Jeddo Mine Tunnel, notorious for releasing millions of gallons of contaminated water from abandoned mines every day for the past 100 years.
Finding a Place for Solar Arrays and Wind Farms
In addition to assessing the sites for factors that would enhance (or impede) energy harvesting from the sun and wind, EPA and NREL are also looking at the type of installation that a particular site could host. The typical solar installation, for example, does not require a foundation to be dug, so it could easily be installed on top of a capped landfill. For wind turbines, a system of concrete footings and supporting wires could be constructed, instead of drilling into contaminated soil.
A New Energy Future
It could be said – so I’ll say it – that at one time fossil fuels saved the U.S. from becoming a barren wasteland devoid of trees. Seriously, it is hard to imagine how we could have powered up to this point without burning every stick of wood across the country. But times change, and our fossil fuel friends have outlived their stay. They were in marginal use at the birth of this country, and as we push into a new energy future they will return to that status. It’s only a question of when, not if.
Photo: Industrial site courtesy of MA DEP on flickr.com.
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+.