Think Brown to Get Green

There’s a ray of hope for West Virginia’s depressed and environmentally degraded coal country: renewable solar energy.

An outfit called The Jobs Project recently gathered a team of unemployed coal miners and contractors to build the region’s first solar array, above a doctor’s office in Williamson. The project provided training in new green-job skills along with three days of good wages.

It sure beats blasting the tops off of mountains and filling in streams to dig for coal, which destroys local ecosystems.

This small project was a reminder of the tremendous potential for tapping renewable energy in unlikely locations. A year ago, EPA teamed up with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory for an initiative to encourage clean power development on currently and formerly contaminated land and mines, including Superfund sites.

Besides the potential for turning lead into gold, the development of so-called “brownfield” sites tends to overcome most objections from local environmentalists and land-use planners, who might block similar projects in more pristine areas. On the other hand, legal liability issues related to local site pollution create new obstacles of their own.

Creative proposals for brownfield redevelopment are taking root around the country.

In Muskegon County, Michigan, the 11,000-acre wastewater treatment plant—which is huge enough to see from Earth orbit—is seeking proposals for a utility-scale wind energy facility on farmland within its fenceline. The treatment plant already turns landfill methane into energy rather than allowing it to escape to the atmosphere, where it is a potent greenhouse gas.

Joseph Harrison, a project developer for Borrego Solar Systems in Berkeley, noted recently that landfills can be ideal sites for new solar plants:

The Southwestern desert has strong sunlight and ample land, but grid interconnection has become a complicated issue and environmental development issues remain. Rooftop installations, on the other hand, often suffer from shading, foliage, pollution, limited space, building structure limitations and other complications.

Landfills are, generally speaking, locations close to good infrastructure, properly zoned, flat and wide-open, and in perhaps the greatest benefit, under little commercial development demand.

Landfills typically range from five to 80 acres in size, making them suitable for solar installations with a capacity of anywhere from one to 16 megawatts. If only a quarter of the estimated 100,000 landfill sites across the country were developed this way, he calculated, “we could produce a potential 212 gigawatts of clean energy—almost 500 times the solar energy produced in the U.S. in 2009 (425 MW).”


Harrison concedes there are plenty of complications that make this prospect a challenge, but his analysis is refreshing. What he proposes—and what the EPA is trying to accomplish—is a creative combination of land recycling and green energy. It could be a marriage made in heaven.

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