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From brown to bright: a new option for contaminated lands

May 20, 2011


By Bryant Cannon
Cleantech Law Partners
According to the Energy Information Administration U.S. electricity production will need to increase by nearly 30 percent to meet growing demand by 2030 – the equivalent of more than 320 mid-sized coal-fired power plants. For a multitude of reasons, from local health to global health, clean energy technologies, not fossil fuels, are required to supply this need. However, the land intensive nature of these technologies, especially solar and wind, has previously acted as a significant constraint on development. Paradoxically, renewable energies are installed most abundantly in areas far from greatest energy demand. This disparity requires lengthy transmission resulting in energy losses and extra costs.
Finding ways to incorporate these new sources into the existing electricity grid is of paramount importance. With the conservation concerns implicit in greenfield development, contaminated land that was previously idle or abandoned becomes an attractive location for renewable energy projects. To facilitate this, the Environmental Protection Agency tracks approximately 490,000 sites and almost 15 million acres of potentially contaminated properties ranging including Superfund, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and Brownfields sites. The EPA promotes the reuse of contaminated land for renewable energy facilities through its Re-Powering America’s Lands Initiative. The EPA offers tools and support to assist site owners, developers, utilities, and communities interested in developing renewable energy projects on contaminated properties.
In addition to taking the stress off undeveloped lands for construction of new energy facilities these redevelopments can be attractive for a diverse range of additional reasons. They often cover thousands of acres of land an require a limited number of site owners making them easier to administer and assemble and they often have critical infrastructure in place including electric transmission lines, roads and water on-site, which is already zoned for development. Additionally, they are an economically viable reuse for sites that otherwise could face significant cleanup costs or low demand for real estate development while providing job opportunities in local communities. Lastly, these projects advance cleaner and more cost effective energy technologies, reducing the environmental impacts of America’s energy system and encouraging the implementation of innovative technologies.
The possible scale of this new industry is huge. Across biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar more than 1,000,000 MW of potential production has been assessed. At present, this potential is almost entirely unutilized, frequently due to concerns over liability (even though the EPA and most state voluntary cleanup programs offer mechanisms for limiting liability). There is some hope: the sector is starting to grow as municipalities, states, and the federal government recognize the important role renewable energy can play in invigorating abandoned sites. This passion for developing innovative solutions to thorny social and land use problems offers significant opportunities to those individuals and companies eager to excel in this nascent field. The time is ripe for lighting up America’s industrial past by converting brownfields into brightfields.
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