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3,000 Gigawatts Of Solar Brightfield Potential On America's Landfills And Brownfields

It’s understandable if the 16-megawatt solar project that recently broke ground outside Annapolis didn’t garner national attention. After all, 12,600 megawatts of new solar will go online across the United States in 2017. But the solar project worth millions of dollars spreading across 80 acres of a closed landfill is the biggest-yet example of one of renewable energy’s most exciting applications – solar brightfields.

While landfills and brownfields (defined by the U.S. EPA as any property complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant) may not be considered a growth market for America’s solar industry, the growing trend of brightfields – solar projects built on otherwise unusable land – creates win-win-win options for local governments and property owners, utilities and solar developers, and residents of blighted communities.

Local governments and property owners win by returning unusable land to productive use while generating new income and property tax revenue. Utilities and solar developers win by building profitable solar generation close to areas of high electricity demand while avoiding siting conflicts in land-constrained areas. Residents win through reduced local power plant emissions and expanded access to local high-tech jobs.

Solar Brightfields Can Capitalize On America’s Hazardous History of Growth

Solar brightfields can be located almost anywhere across the U.S. where development has led to contamination and rendered land unusable, often in urban areas. EPA has pre-screened more than 80,000 brownfields for renewable energy siting potential, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates landfills and other contaminated sites cover 15 million acres across the country. That’s enough land to generate around 3 million MW of solar according to NREL land-use estimates – meaning solar brightfields are capable of generating roughly as much electricity as the U.S. consumes in a year.

Potential solar brightfield locations

Capped landfills have very few complementary uses, and brownfields can require millions of dollars in remediation costs before they can be safely occupied, but fortunately both types of locations offer advantages for siting solar projects.

Landfills are typically elevated high above surrounding trees and buildings, offering unshaded sites capable of boosting potential solar output throughout the day, and are often already connected to the grid through methane generation operations. Brownfields are typically located at former industrial sites that have been cleared of above-ground structures, providing flat unshaded expanses, often in proximity to existing power lines or large potential industrial customers like warehouses or factories. In both instances, projects can capitalize on higher generation potential and existing grid infrastructure.

Landfills and brownfields are typically located within or close to major cities, which means they can add new clean electricity generation in population centers without adding pollution, and can tap the rising popularity of community solar projects. Since these locations are often considered environmental concerns, nearby residents will likely consider renewable energy a positive way to use the land, reducing public concerns compared to solar development in forested or undeveloped open spaces.

Brightfields can also expand economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities by creating new jobs in construction or operations and maintenance – solar installation jobs can’t be outsourced and offer competitive wages.

Utilities and solar developers can also benefit from favorable project economics through specific incentives from federal and state governments eager to return landfills and brownfields to productive use. At the federal level, EPA’s Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to sustainably reuse contaminated property, and multiple local governments provide similar incentives, including:

  • Massachusetts’ SRECII solar carve-out assigns higher value to energy generated at contaminated sites than projects built on undeveloped sites or on commercial rooftops.
  • New Jersey’s SREC program similarly rewards brightfield development over other renewables, further supporting contaminated site development via its Solar Loan Act.
  • New York State offers financial incentives for solar brightfields and is considering streamlining environmental review of proposed projects.
  • New York City’s Brownfield Partnership provides free technical consulting on brownfield liability and remediation to project developers.

A Solution for Land-Constrained States With Ambitious Renewable Energy Goals?

Solar brightfields could also solve tricky siting challenges facing state governments with high renewable energy targets but without large tracts of undeveloped lands. Recent Energy Innovation analysis highlighted solar brightfields as one of the most promising ways to solve this quandary in the Northeast U.S., which simultaneously has some of America’s most ambitious renewable energy goals and some of the country’s most land-constrained areas.

Northeast US state renewable energy goals

For instance, New York’s ambitious 50% by 2030 renewable generation goal would necessitate 3,500 MW of onshore wind and 6,800 MW of utility-scale solar, requiring approximately 700 square kilometers (km) for wind turbines and 136 square km for solar arrays, using NREL land-use estimates. However, most of the state’s undeveloped land suitable for new solar projects is on private or preserved land, and more than half of New York State is occupied by forest and woodlands. And unlike wind turbines, large-scale solar is incompatible with most agricultural uses, wildlife habitat, or wilderness.

Solar brightfields could help meet this demand for solar generation in land-constrained states by focusing projects on former industrial sites and contaminated land without causing new environmental concerns. For instance, design innovations like ballasted racking systems mean panels can be secured atop landfill caps or remediated ground without disturbing hazardous materials beneath the array.

From Brown To Green

The Annapolis project may be the biggest solar brightfield in America to date, but it’s far from the only installation underway. Solar developers and local governments across the country are actively pursuing new projects at landfills and brownfields –a 20-MW, $30 million solar array proposed for a capped landfill in Maine would become the country’s largest such project. And, utilities are starting to bring their considerable weight to bear – New Jersey’s PSEG received regulatory approval late in 2016 to add 33 MW of solar brightfields to its 158 MW Solar 4 All program through 2020.

Add it all up, and the considerable benefits of solar brightfields – investment potential, urban and blighted revitalization, increased tax revenue, and adding new renewables – mean they’re a shining example of how clean energy can improve our communities and economy.

By Silvio Marcacci, Communications Director at Energy Innovation, where he leads all public relations and communications efforts.

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