US targets ‘contaminated sites’ for wind and solar projects

US agencies have identified more than 66,000 sites which have an additional benefit of putting a stop to NIMBY protests

Over 10,000 sites have been identified for solar arrays. (Source: SunPower)

By Nilima Choudhury

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is setting up renewable energy projects on contaminated lands, landfills, and mine sites across the country.

More than 66,000 contaminated sites with renewable energy potential have been identified through the EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative.

“We see responsible renewable energy development on contaminated lands and landfills as a win-win-win for the nation, local communities, and the environment,” said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

“In President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the administration set a goal to double renewable electricity generation by 2020.

“By identifying the renewable energy potential of contaminated sites across the country, these screening results are a good step toward meeting national renewable energy goals in order to address climate change, while also cleaning up and revitalising contaminated lands in our communities.”


Working in collaboration with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), RE-Powering developed screening criteria for solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal potential at various levels of development. The sites are tracked by EPA and selected state agencies.

The updated screening provides insight into the significant potential for renewable energy generation on contaminated lands and landfills nationwide.

Gail Mosey, senior energy analyst at NREL, told RTCC the project is expanding its renewables options since its inception in 2008: “At the time it was just wind and solar but we added geothermal and we’ve also been looking at some biomass options.”

More than 70 renewable energy projects have now been installed on contaminated lands or landfills. For solar energy alone, EPA identified over 10,000 contaminated sites with the potential to install a 300kW solar array or greater.

Based on mapped acreage, these sites could cumulatively host solar energy systems that capture greater than 30 times more solar energy than all renewable energy systems operating in the United States today.

These early projects represent just over 200MW of installed capacity, which could power approximately 30,000 homes, and provide a foundation for future development as demonstrations of the latest technologies in both renewable energy and remediation design.

Mosey pointed out that using contaminated land, especially landfills had an additional benefit – putting a stop to the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ attitude from local residents.

“Landfills in particular are good because often they are out of sight, so you can have panels on top of a landfill and people don’t even know there are panels up there because it’s just that high up above your eye level.”

The only challenge facing renewable energy developers is the expense. Some sites would need to be decontaminated, or modified to accommodate plants by removing existing structures, for example.

But Mosey said: “It depends on the site and the degree of contamination. Brownfield sites can have quite a range on whether it’s ready for reuse or not. It’s very difficult to make a general statement about that.

“A lot work has been put into [this initiative] for the past few years [but] it does feel like it’s taking off – it’s actually happening.”

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