Turning Brown into Gold
August 22, 2012

In preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, London set an exciting example in sustainable redevelopment. This included recapturing heat generated by biomass-powered electricity production in Olympic Park's state-of-the-art Energy Centre; constructing deeply-efficient venues such as the track cycling velodrome; recycling and composting almost all waste and packaging; and promoting carbon-free transportation through the Active Travel programme, among other examples of advanced design.

London's commitment to rejuvenating inner-city areas and cleaning up contaminated sites serves as a particularly noteworthy illustration of forward-looking development. While few cities have a $14.5 billion budget to invest in improving their local environment and incorporating renewable energy into the grid, there are cost-effective ways for any community to embrace less-carbon-intensive solutions.

One great place to start is with land that is otherwise compromised, such as brownfields, which are properties that have been contaminated by hazardous substances or pollutants and that are difficult to build on and can bring down surrounding real estate values. This is an approach London and past host-cities have taken, positioning Olympic facilities with the intention of creating urban renewal in previously neglected or toxic areas.

Revitalizing brownfields began as early as 2000 in Sydney, when the Olympic Committee chose to regenerate an industrial site that had deteriorated to a partial waste landfill to develop Stadium Australia, the major venue of Sydney's Games. In addition to recouping a site, the stadium uses various sustainable solutions, such as natural and energy-efficient lighting, two gas-fired co-generation engines, and significant waste- and water-saving measures.

While cleaning up sites such as capped landfills, abandoned mines, and former industrial properties can be pricey, converting them into renewable energy generating capacity may help make the investment pay back over time.

For example, the city of Maywood, CA installed a 3.4-kilowatt solar photovoltaic (PV) system at a city-owned Superfund site that had been contaminated by a chemical mixing operation, and used the power generated for on-site groundwater and soil remediation.  In this case, renewable energy production made the actual clean-up process cheaper.

Local governments can bring down the cost of siting clean energy on a brownfield by tailoring environmental remediation requirements based on the specific intended reuse of a property. For example, clean-up requirements can be made less stringent for constructing a wind farm or solar array than for something such as a housing development, for which the area would have to meet residential zero-contamination standards.

Additionally, long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) between cities and renewable energy companies, such as Greenfield, Massachusetts' contract to buy electricity from Axio Power's 2-megawatt PV array on a closed landfill, can provide developers financial assurances needed for obtaining up-front capital to start projects. Not only does this bring local governments new revenues from land leases or property taxes, but PPAs also protect entire communities from rising energy costs.

As an idea, transforming low-value, high-risk property to produce renewable electricity sounds marvelous. This solution addresses in tandem the problem of idle land with limited redevelopment options and a potential drawback of renewables, one that is often cited by opposition: that generation capacity is built on terrain that could be utilized for more productive purposes.

However, countless obstacles and uncertainties can arise in bringing such projects to fruition. To help developers wade through various types of renewable energy and understand the state and local regulations concerning site screening, permitting, land-use regulations, liability, renewable energy credits (RECs), and incentives, government officials have a helpful manual to point them in the right direction.

In January 2012, the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals published a primer to help local governments evaluate the potential for developing renewable energy on brownfields. The resource, Cultivating Green Energy on Brownfields: A Nuts and Bolts Primer for Local Governments, serves as a starting point for local governments considering renewable energy as part of redevelopment strategies for brownfields or other contaminated sites. The paper includes:

  • An overview of different types of renewable energy and technology options for brownfield redevelopment.
  • A briefing on site-specific factors that affect the achievability of a project, such as the status of environmental remediation and proximity to transmission and transportation infrastructure.
  • Existing tools and resources for technical and financial assistance, including an appendix of relevant listings and web-site links for interested officials to consult throughout the complex process of putting together a plan for clean energy production.
  • A section that addresses the economic viability of developing a renewable energy project, paying special attention to the wide variety of laws, markets, and incentives existing in different states and locales.
  • Real examples and case studies of U.S. cities that have carried out of each type of project.
  • Suggestions for specific ways that local governments, either directly or indirectly, can encourage renewable energy development on local brownfields.

The primary added value of this primer is that it acts as a toolkit for cities, collecting useful facts, tips, resources, explanations, examples, and ideas into one easy-to-read piece. It is just the sort of “how-to” guide needed in order to make city-led innovation in clean energy economic, replicable, and straightforward, rather than something restricted to cities with massive budgets and abundant specialists.

More resources, redevelopment tools, and other programs related to siting renewable energy on potentially contaminated land and mine sites are available through the US EPA's RE-Powering America's Land page.

Photo: ANZ Stadium, originally known as Stadium Australia. Credit: www.austadiums.com.

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