It’s understandable if the 16-megawatt solar project that broke ground last month outside Annapolis didn’t garner national attention. After all, 12,600 gigawatts 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.
U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge National Laboratory
The RSI Brightfield 1 solar array at East Tennessee Technology Park
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 .
U.S. EPA RE-Powering America’s Lands program
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.