Transforming Brownfields to “Brightfields” with Solar

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International City/County Management Association hosted the 2019 National Brownfields Training Conference in Los Angeles, California. SolSmart attended the conference, which gathered various stakeholders, including local government leaders, focused on cleaning up and reusing formerly utilized commercial and industrial properties. In search of ways to redevelop their brownfield properties, local governments throughout the U.S. are using solar energy to ensure their investment provides long-term benefits for the whole community.

Brownfields are properties previously used for industrial or commercial purposes in such a way that expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of them may be complicated by the presence of hazardous substances or contaminants. Examples of brownfields include certain landfills, scrap yards, mines, and other land that has been potentially contaminated with pollutants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are over 450,000 brownfield sites in the United States alone. These sites are often left vacant or underutilized due to contamination, causing blight and eroding the tax bases of communities.

Brownfields have unique attributes that can offer significant advantages for developing solar arrays, including unshaded open spaces, preexisting infrastructure connected to the grid, and proximity to population centers. When these advantages are leveraged properly, local governments and property owners can transform unusable land into opportunities for producing clean energy while generating new property tax revenue and job opportunities. Utilities and solar developers can also benefit from certain federal and state government incentives available for businesses that recycle brownfields.

SolSmart works with local governments to ensure they have the necessary streamlined permitting and approval processes that can accommodate developers aiming to transform brownfields into brightfields. So far, SolSmart has awarded 33 designations to local governments that have built solar installations on brownfields or landfills.

San Miguel County, Colorado, (SolSmart Bronze) for example, installed a landfill solar array designed to lower the electric bills of qualified low-income residents. While brightfield projects can benefit from government involvement, they generally require permits and approvals from federal, state, and local agencies that are not typically involved in solar projects. Long waits and slow turnover times for obtaining solar permits can place significant financial burdens on the developer. Therefore, a streamlined permitting process and well-trained government officials at the local level are critical to successfully developing a brightfield. Other localities that have moved from brownfields to brightfields include Ypsilanti, Michigan, (SolSmart Gold) which built a solar array on a water treatment facility, and Tyngsborough, Massachusetts, (SolSmart Gold) which also installed a solar array on a landfill. If your community is interested in receiving SolSmart technical assistance around the development of solar on brownfields, please request a consultation here.