01 September 2010

Brownfield and landfill sites: Perfect for renewable energy development?

by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

Yesterday’s Boston Globe took note of Canton, Massachusetts’ negotiation to use a capped landfill as an energy production site. While many localities have discovered landfill gas as an alternative energy source, Canton plans to use about half of the 41-acre site as a solar farm.

Turns out this Boston exurb is part of a growing trend around the country: taking “unusable” landfill and brownfield space, and converting it into renewable energy generation sites. The EPA estimates that 15 million acres of “potentially contaminated properties” exist around the United States, and has developed its “RE-Powering America’s Land” around putting some of these sites to use as clean energy production facilities.

The idea makes sense: this land isn’t fit for most other kinds of development, and its contaminated status means it also isn’t appropriate for redevelopment into green space (although Fresh Kills could prove this assumption wrong). It gives large-scale renewable energy developers a way to avoid to the conflicts inherent in siting their projects on wild lands. Obviously, health and safety issues for workers would have to be addressed, but, assuming those concerns can be handled responsibly, that’s an awful lot of unwanted land available for renewable projects.

How could brownfield and landfill sites be redeveloped for renewable energy production?
A number of approaches have either been used, or are in the planning stages, for clean energy development on landfill and contaminated sites:

Solar installations: Canton isn’t the first to come up with this idea. In fact, the military seems to be taking the lead here: solar facilities are in operation at capped landfills at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, and the Army’s Fort Carson outside of Colorado Springs.
Wind farms: Ohio seems to like this concept: Wood County developed the state’s first commercial wind farm at its landfill, and Lake County may also move it that direction.
Biofuel crops: One of the more exciting concepts on this front, plants could pull double-duty as remediation agents and biofuel feedstock. Social enterprise GTECH (Growth Through Energy + Community Health) ran a successful pilot of this concept on the ALMONO brownfield site in Hazelwood, Pennsylvania, and scientists at Michigan State University have been researching the feasibility of this concept since 2006.

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