Turning wasteland into power plants fueled by the sun

Huge clean energy prospects await us if we are willing to look anew at the wastelands we have long shunned as best forgotten, writes author and lawyer Philip Warburg.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Solar panels line a roof in Brooklyn, New York.

When utility giant Exelon built its pioneering inner-city solar plant on an abandoned factory site in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood, there was at least one unanticipated hazard: the shattering of glass photovoltaic panels by stray bullets falling from the sky. Exelon City Solar may not have resolved the deep-seated social problems of this crime-ridden South Side community, but it has demonstrated that solar power can breathe new life into polluted properties that have lain dormant and decaying for decades.

Surveying more than 35 million acres of abandoned mines, landfills, factories, and hazardous waste dumps, the US Environmental Protection Agency has identified a total of 5.5 trillion watts of solar potential – enough to produce about seven times the total electricity consumed by all US households. Site preparation costs may be prohibitive at some of these properties; cheap electricity from coal and gas may further inhibit solar development in certain areas; access to transmission lines may be a constraint at others. But already solar developers have overcome these constraints at hundreds of “brownfield” sites across the country, and hundreds of additional projects are in various stages of development. Huge clean energy prospects await us if we are willing to look anew at the wastelands we have long shunned as best forgotten.

In West Pullman, dozens of perfectly aligned rows of photovoltaic panels occupy the polluted acreage once used by International Harvester as an assembly plant. When the farm equipment manufacturer shut this factory down more than three decades ago, it turned its back on pools of polluted wastewater and soils loaded with asbestos. Even after the city took over the 41-acre parcel and began to clean it up, the site was far from safe for residential or commercial development. Solar power offered a path to redemption through reuse, but it took a combination of entrepreneurial daring, engineering savvy, and local political support to make the project a reality.

Today the Exelon City Solar plant generates enough clean energy for 1,500 Chicago area homes. Among the hundreds employed building the project, a local welding shop enjoyed a major bump in business, making thousands of steel pole mounts for the solar arrays. Today, instead of having to warn their kids away from a festering wasteland, abutting residents look out on a fenced-in field of neatly arrayed solar panels.

In the Chicago metro area, the non-profit Environmental Law and Policy Center is looking for ways to build on Exelon City Solar’s lead. Scouring the industrial landscape, its Brownfields to Brightfields or "B2B" team has evaluated the solar compatibility of some two hundred properties. “There are tremendous opportunities to unlock latent value in abandoned industrial brownfields and transform them into clean energy brightfields for the future,” says the center’s president Howard Learner.

Solar developers and environmental groups in the Windy City are by no means alone in seeking out ways to repurpose disused industrial real estate for clean energy development. Similar signs of change have appeared in places as diverse as the frostbitten Northeast and the sun-soaked Southwest.  (Photovoltaic technology captures energy from the sun’s light rather than its heat, and, surprising to some, it actually works better in colder weather.)  

Just across the Hudson River from southern Manhattan, a solar power plant now straddles the crest of a hill that was, until recently, part of the Meadowlands solid waste disposal complex, a huge repository for New York City’s garbage. It is one of several closed landfills that the area’s electric utility, PSE&G, has converted to solar power.  

Dozens of former waste dumps now play a similar role in my own state, Massachusetts. In New England’s former whaling capital, New Bedford, photovoltaic arrays occupy a stretch of land so polluted that it is on the EPA’s “Superfund” list of high-priority sites for decontamination. Together with other solar investments made by the city, the output of this power plant is expected to reduce municipal electric bills by about $1 million annually.

Across the continent in Sacramento, the Aerojet Rocketdyne Corporation has installed 20 solar fields at a factory complex so ravaged by rocket manufacturing that drinking water wells for miles around must be pumped and treated round-the-clock. Seeking to clean up its image along with its power supply, the company negotiated a deal with a solar developer and the local electricity provider, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). Aerojet gave the land for free; SMUD offered investment rebates; and a 30 percent federal tax credit significantly reduced the project’s overall cost. Solar Power Inc., the company that owns the solar fields, sells the renewable power it generates to Aerojet at a lower rate than it has been paying to SMUD for its electricity.  Importantly, at this and other brownfield solar sites, project owners and operators are protected from pollution-related liability so long as they don’t aggravate existing environmental hazards.

To be sure, solar power’s prospects extend far beyond gritty sites like these. Our rooftops – from individual homes to giant warehouses and big-box stores – can contribute about a fifth of America’s total power needs, according to the government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Additional solar heft can be had by building “utility-scale” solar power plants on fallow fields and open desert lands; about two-thirds of all new solar power today comes from these large facilities, often covering hundreds or even thousands of acres. 

Tapping all these solar resources, it’s no idle fantasy to imagine a third or more of America’s electricity coming from the sun by mid-century. Brownfield sites are a promising piece of this puzzle. The opportunities abound; we just have to step beyond often-forbidding factory fences and “Danger – No Entry” signs to find them.

Philip Warburg, an environmental attorney, is the author of two books on renewable energy, Harness the Sun and Harvest the Wind.

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