Renewable Energy & Superfund Sites: Watts Up?

March 17, 2010

Just because a site is contaminated with toxics or chemicals doesn't necessarily mean it's all bad news for the environment. On Feb. 23, EPA and the National Renewable Energy Lab announced a project to explore whether Superfund sites in 12 states might make a good home for renewable energy projects.

This project will analyze development potential for wind, solar, or small hydro power at contaminated sites in various stages of cleanup. They'll determine which renewable technologies are the best fit, optimal placement for on-site renewables, potential energy generating capacity, return on investment, and overall economic feasibility.

The 12 sites being assessed are:

  • CA (Alpine County): Leviathan Mine Superfund site (wind, solar, ydro)
  • CA (Riverside): Stringfellow Superfund site, a former hazardous waste disposal site (solar)
  • FL: St. Marks Refinery brownfields (solar)
  • KS (Shawnee): Doepke-Holliday Superfund site, a former municipal and industrial waste landfill (wind, solar)
  • MA (Bourne, Falmouth, Sandwich, Mashpee): Massachusetts Military Reservation (solar)
  • MI (Baraga): Keweenaw Bay Indian community tribal brownfields (wind)
  • MN (Onamie): Mille Lacs Band tribal community dump site (wind)
  • PA (Drums): Jeddo Tunnel brownfield, an 1800s-era drainage system for four major coal basins (hydro)
  • RI (Newport): Rhode Island Naval Station Superfund site (wind, solar, other)
  • WI (Middleton): Refuse Hideaway Landfill Superfund site (solar)
  • WV (Nitro): Vacant former industrial property brownfields (solar)
  • Puerto Rico: Several landfills (solar)

Also, small-scale renewable projects will be considered for former gas-station sites around the country (alternative fuel stations, solar, wind).

  • Fact sheets with contact info for each site. Some of these projects would generate energy to power cleanup activities; while other utility-scale projects would sell power back to the grid.

Work on these assessments is beginning this year. While there's no guarantee that these projects will ever be built, following these analyses could be an intriguing window on how to tackle two thorny environmental problems at once.

Potential uses for brownfields, Superfund sites, abandoned mines, and RCRA sites are a widespread problem. EPA tracks about 490,000 sites and almost 15 million acres of potentially contaminated properties across the US. So far only about 917,000 of these acres have achieved cleanup goals, with long-term protection implemented.

It's possible that there may be fewer public and political battles over siting renewable projects on contaminated sites, compared to other lands. This approach might minimize or sidestep difficulties in finding constructive uses for these sites.

But such projects could also be superficial greenwashing. Pay close attention to the economic feasibility and return on investment projected for these projects. Compare them to comparable renewable projects on non-contaminated lands.

This EPA/NREL effort is part of EPA's larger initiative, "RE-Powering America's Land." That site includes some useful interactive tools for finding state and local angles, explanations of the criteria used to select and evaluate sites, overviews of state and federal incentives, and more.

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