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Green Jobs 14 million acres of former industrial land in U.S. could be used for solar and wind energy

Published on June 26th, 2010 | by Tina Casey


14 Million Acres of Land in U.S. for Solar Energy and Wind Farms

June 26th, 2010 by  

14 million acres of former industrial land in U.S. could be used for solar and wind energyIf 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.

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • johnnailer

    wow why use toxic superfund sites when there are thousands of abandoned wind farms all over the us that could be used?

    just google abandoned wind farms and you’ll find 100’s of pictures of rusting machines some operating and some not. why not use these sites?

    • Tina Casey

      To our readers: yes, I googled “abandoned wind farms” so you don’t have to, though you might as well because it only takes a second and the first thing that pops up is an article on that crappy “American Thinker” site, which refers to some turbines that were planted in Hawaii in the 1980’s. That was a few years ago. Possibly things have changed since then. I remember the 1980’s because oil prices had spiked up (part of my job back then was to track and report local heating oil prices) and then dropped, which naturally meant that wind power and other forms of renewable energy were less competitive. For that matter, a few people were experimenting with solar power in the 1970’s and that pretty much went nowhere. Well, that was then, this is now. Go tell it to the Marines.

      • johnnailer


        We’re with the Marines on this one we need more wind power and its needed right now! The superfund sites just make no sense at all when there are all these abandoned wind farms we could be using.

        The abandoned wind sites are among the best places in the united states to harness strong constant winds. They were selected after millions of dollars of research by top experts. Significant infrastructure is already in place to connect with the grid and many supporting company’s are located near by. Plus the local citizens are already used to their presence and extensive ecological studies have been ran on the farms environmental impact for many years.

        With the trouble in the middle east and the weakening dollar we don’t have time to waste on “site assessments” at toxic superfund sites! We need to harness as many indigenous renewable resources post haste and wasting time on things like this is very counterproductive.

        • Tina Casey

          Johnnailer: I agree, the more the merrier, and all things being equal it makes more sense to re-use available, non-classified land. However, keep in mind that many Superfund and other classified sites are attractive for alternative energy because they are located within areas that already have grid, road, and other infrastructure in place. Some are located in or near population centers and would contribute to economic revival if reclaimed for energy and other purposes. At rural sites, alternative energy can be used to power equipment needed to remediate groundwater and soil contamination. But now that you have everyone’s curiosity up, can you provide some links to primary sources for the number of abandoned wind farms in the U.S. and their suitability for re-use?

          • johnnailer

            Sure! Just start in the Tehachapi Pass.

          • Tina Casey

            Johnnailer: For the benefit of our readers, please send in a link to your source for your information that there are thousands of abandoned wind farms in the U.S. To clarify, did you mean to say thousands of wind farms or simply thousands of wind turbines (or wind mills, including those dating back to the settlement of the west).

  • Larry Siegel

    NOTSOFAST claims that wind power does not reduce C02 significantly. Really? Here is what the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) states are the benefits that have accrued with wind power:

    AWEA details some of wind power’s contributions to the environment, energy production and the economy. These include: |

    -Avoiding carbon: In 2009, U.S. wind farms generated 70.8 million megawatt-hours of electricity and avoided over 40 million metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of reducing power sector emissions by nearly 2% or taking over 7 million cars off the road. Using more wind power means using less fossil fuel-generated electricity for a simple economic reason: wind power, a fuel-free source of electricity, backs down the most expensive power source at the margin, which tends to be fossil fuel because of its fuel costs. |

    -Improving environmental health with pure, clean energy: On an annual basis, U.S. wind farms operating as of the end of 2009 will avoid 200,000 metric tons of acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide and 80,000 metric tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxides, which would otherwise have been emitted from conventional power plants. Wind power also avoids other power sector pollutants such as mercury, as well as mining and drilling for fuel, and production of hazardous or toxic wastes, ash, or slurry. |

    -Saving water: On an annual basis, U.S. wind farms operating |

    at the end of 2009 will conserve over 20 billion gallons of

    water which would otherwise be withdrawn for steam or cooling in conventional power plants. Wind energy makes it possible to meet our energy needs without further polluting or depleting valuable water resources. |

    -Saving money: Investing in wind power rapidly translates into savings for consumers, thanks to lower fuel use for electricity generation and lower energy bills. Several studies from government agencies and independent energy experts continue to show that a national renewable electricity standard (RES) will lower costs to consumers. |

    -Saving money, take two: Wind power also saves money by protecting public health. A National Academy of Sciences study released in 2009 found that pollution from fossil fuels cost the U.S. $120 billion a year, including $62 billion from coal plants, in damages to human health. Strikingly, those figures do not include damages from climate change, harm to

    ecosystems, or impacts from pollutants such as mercury. The NAS study is a reminder of the enormous hidden cost that energy-related pollution inflicts on our society and of the environmental and economic imperative of using renewable energy. -Creating new jobs and business opportunity: Wind power supports 85,000 jobs in the U.S. today, and the number of wind turbine and wind turbine component manufacturing facilities in the U.S. has blossomed to over 200 facilities across the U.S. today, up from under 100 in 2007. While manufacturing investment levels dropped in 2009 compared to 2008, at least |

    39 wind manufacturing plants were expanded, announced or opened last year—suggesting wind power’s huge manufacturing investment and job creation potential given the right policies.

    Looking to the future consider this:

    U.S. Wind Energy Resource Even Larger than Previously estimated: Government Assessment

    Washington, District of Columbia, United States February 18, 2010

    The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) today issued the following statement from AWEA CEO Denise Bode on a new assessment from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showing that U.S. wind resources are larger than previously estimated:

    “This new analysis confirms that America is blessed with vast wind resources that can energize our economy, create jobs, and avoid carbon for years to come—if we give ourselves the policy tools to do so, including a strong national Renewable Electricity Standard with aggressive, binding near- and long-term targets. A national Renewable Electricity Standard would not only ensure that we tap our nation’s vast wind resources, but create thousands of new American jobs today, manufacturing the 8,000 component parts that go into a modern wind turbine. The wind resource is there, vast and inexhaustible, waiting for us. Meanwhile, the economy can’t wait, job creation can’t wait, and America can’t wait. We need Congress to act now and pass a comprehensive climate and energy bill that includes a strong national Renewable Electricity Standard.”

    Highlights of the new analysis include:

    * Onshore U.S. wind resources could generate nearly 37,000,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) annually, more than nine times current total U.S. electricity consumption.

    * Put another way, the potential capacity of America’s onshore wind resource is over 10,000 gigawatts (GW). The U.S. is barely tapping this vast resource: current wind installed capacity is 35 GW in the U.S. and 158 GW world-wide.

    * These larger estimates are due to improved wind turbine technology, as today’s taller turbines tap better winds at higher elevations (this study measured winds at 80 meters), and to more refined wind measurements. The previous national government survey of U.S. wind resources, carried out by the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, estimated U.S. wind potential at 10,777,000 GWh.

    Given how wrong Mr. Notsofast is in his claims and how he ignores or is ignorant of all of the accumulated benefits of wind power we have realized to date and can realize in the future, I suggest he rethink his position and change his sign on name to FULL SPEED AHEAD.

    As to Notsofast’s concern with the proximity of placing wind farms in or near a community you DO have the option of using solar rather than wind AND you can use smaller wind power units that may address concerns about the proximity of a wind farm to residents: sales of small home-scaled wind turbines increased last year by almost 10,000 units.

  • I agree we need more solar energy and wind power.

  • MD

    One site they need to look into is Centralia Pennsylvania, they could easily generate a lot of power there simply by putting water into the ground and harnessing the steam coming out.

    Centralia Pennsylvania


    The town has been burning underground since 1962, all those wasted BTUs should be put to work.

  • Eric

    Yes we need wind power, we need solar energy, but we also need E15 if not E20. We cannot loose more time in discussing if and when. Europe and China has overtaken the US in alternative energy and what we are doing is just putting more obstacles on alternatives. We cannot afford this.

  • Origo

    notsofast fails to state that nuclear electric generating plants use millions of gallons of water every minute in their cooling towers; they routinely vent radioactive gas to the atmosphere, and produce thousands of tons of radioactive waste each year—waste, the disposal of which is paid by U.S. taxpayers through the federal government.

    Geothermal plants can boil water as well as nuclear plants to run electric generators; they require no cooling towers; and every state in the U.S. has potential sites for geothermal plants, according to Karl Gawell of the GeothermalEnergy Association.

    Solar, wind, and geothermal are excellent sources of non-carbon energy, but they all are stationary. We need also a mobile, onboard source of non-carbon energy. That can be accomplished by solar cells recharging batteries in electric vehicles. There is, however, another source of non-carbon energy.

    Ironically, hiding in plain sight, oil in the Gulf of Mexico is floating on top of the very answer to our energy independence! Water is our only source of renewable, carbon-free fuel available in the huge quantities needed to supplant gasoline.

    Water requires no investment in exploration, drilling, refining, mining, transportation, service stations, or disposal of fly ash or nuclear waste. It is non-flammable; recyclable; and consumes no atmospheric oxygen. Best of all, it is free! It falls from the sky to replenish our streams, lakes and oceans.

    Using current technology, water can be split relatively easily into hydrogen and oxygen with any of several available photocatalyts, using sunlight [and LED electric lighting at night], to power the process aboard motor vehicles equipped with hydrogen internal combustion engines, or equipped with fuel cells and electric motors. Larger, stationary fuel cells can generate electricity for individual businesses or homes.

    Automobile manufacturers would need little time and monetary investment to make internal combustion engines that are designed to use hydrogen as a fuel. Onboard hydrogen-producing systems would obviate the need for a nationwide system of hydrogen refilling stations, thus saving time and money.


  • Bill Woods

    How much of this 14 million acres of “former industrial sites and dumps” is in areas that are really suitable for wind or solar? Also, the setbacks needed for wind turbines mean that small parcels of land near houses won’t work.

    • Tina Casey

      Thanks for your comment. These are questions that the site assessment will answer.

  • A couple of things I’m concerned with. Putting windfarms “in and near communities” is not doing anyone any favors. People worldwide hate them close to their homes because of noise and lower property values-undeniable.

    Another thing, will people stop saying the Gulf spill has anything at all to do with renewable energy. Our country uses 1.12% oil for producing electricity. That’s it! Oil provides gasoline for our cars predominantly, not electricity,

    One more: it’s a big one. Wind energy does not reduce CO2 emisions significantly. Because of the constant ramping up and down of the back-up source of energy, very insignificant reductions result. In the meantime, our US electrical energy policy is advocating to spend over a trillion dollars, fill up over 100,000 acres of land/water, cause damage to the environment and the health of citizens, double our electric rates by building windfarms that may reduce our CO2 emisions by 2%. What?!!! Yes, only 2%!

    Consider nuclear: wind energy uses 1000 times more land/water area per same energy output as nuclear. This land will never be recovered. How can anyone call wind renewable? It is a failure. Check the facts! Demand evidence with scientific data.

  • blue7053

    All my life, I’ve looked for win/win situations in any type of negotiations or sales: I love this.

    I’ve alway had solar where ever I lived. I would like to start another National Campaign for solar.

    I’d call it “One Room at a Time”.

    If you move your power to the room you’re in, one room’s worth of power is all you need. And that changes throughout the day

  • Ben

    Really great article.

    I would be somewhat concerned about a wind turbine without a deep foundation in the ground though. Are there examples of large turbines held in place primarily by supporting wires?

    • Tina Casey

      Good question. Guy wires are typical of small turbines (here’s an example – http://www.house-energy.com/Wind/Towers.htm). Size of turbine would depend on the site plan and what the energy will be used for, doesn’t necessarily have to be large turbines.

  • yes, we need renewable energy

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