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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

From Brownfields to Solar Plains

Air Date: Week of

Turbines rise above the former Bethlehem Steel Mill in Lackawanna, N.Y. The federal government hopes to convert more abandoned industrial sites such as this to industrial-scale solar and wind facilities. (Photo courtesy First Wind.)

In November, the EPA will begin a series of national workshops to open dialog between developers, government leaders and conservation groups about reclaiming brownfield sites for renewable energy. Soji Adelaja, director of the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University, tells host Jeff Young about the potential to transform brownfields from wastelands into sustainable infrastructures, and why he believes the time is right for these green projects.


YOUNG: The country’s industrial wastelands could get new life as a source of clean energy. The EPA has identified thousands of old brownfields sites that might be developed for renewable energy, like wind, solar and geothermal. Soji Adelaja’s studied the sites in Michigan where he directs the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University. Professor Adelaja, why look to brownfields for green energy?

ADELAJA: Well, some of our old industrial states, and indeed across the nation, have this huge inventory of brownfields that were used for manufacturing and different types of processing in the past. They had adequate connection to the grid, they had power infrastructure well in place, transportation wise they’re very well connected. So much of the infrastructure for this industrial activity to take place already surrounds these places. And the broader infrastructure, roads and so forth, to move the turbines in and move the solar panels in are already in place. On the other hand, there’s an opportunity with the renewed interest in the nation in renewable energy to apply renewable energy on some of these sites, create green jobs. So there’s some tremendous opportunities associated with brownfield sites.

YOUNG: So, these former industrial sites, these brownfield sites, they have a lot going for them, but do they have the energy? Do they have the wind; do they get the sun needed to make renewable energy happen?

ADELAJA: Indeed, that was the essence of our investigation in Michigan. We needed to understand where these brownfields were located and the sizes of those brownfields. So, what we did in our analysis was to look at the locations of these sites, measure the wind readings at those sites, also look at solar resource capacity at those sites, and then correlated those with the sizes of these parcels to be able to figure out just how much energy can be generated from these parcels. And we came up with numbers that actually surprised us. Michigan, for example, statewide could generate about 4,300 megawatts of power using coupled wind, solar array systems.

YOUNG: So, 4,300 megawatts that’s kind of like have the equivalent of a fleet of – I don’t know – eight or nine coal-fired power plants, isn’t it?

ADELAJA: Absolutely, and one other way to look at this is that in the case of Michigan we estimated that this is enough power to power about 40 to 45 percent of the homes in Michigan. So, we’re talking a substantive amount of energy and power being generated.

YOUNG: Now, are there places where this is already happening? Do you have examples of brownfields making green energy?

Turbines rise above the former Bethlehem Steel Mill in Lackawanna, N.Y. The federal government hopes to convert more abandoned industrial sites such as this to industrial-scale solar and wind facilities. (Photo courtesy First Wind.)

ADELAJA: Well, there are a couple that come to mind. In the case of wind energy, the old Bethlehem Steel Plant in Laquawanna, New York is now a wind farm. In the case of solar, there’s the old, former landfill in Fort Carson, Colorado. These are two examples.

YOUNG: And I understand that as popular as some forms of renewable energy are in the broad sense that there’s a bit of NIMBYism, not in my backyard, when it comes to actually putting a wind or other renewable energy facility somewhere. Do you have examples of that?

ADELAJA: Some of the communities are already dealing with a major challenge, visual blight, contamination, and so a windmill or a solar array right next door may not be as challenging for them as they would find a brownfield facility that’s underutilized. Windmills are not blight, by the way, I’ve traveled around the nation and looked at some of the solar farms and wind farms. I think they’re beautiful to behold, but there are people who have a challenge with it.

YOUNG: Now, often these old industrial sites, these are in lower income communities, communities of color. What’s in it for those neighborhoods, if these are redeveloped?

ADELAJA: Well, definitely green jobs and the potential to be employed in the building and development of these renewable energy facilities, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. But, secondly, because many of these sites are owned by the government in some of these communities, or the leadership in some of these communities. It’s a lot easier to structure opportunities to build an energy trust fund that proceeds from land leases and the sale of the land can then be put into say, economic development support funding in the community.

YOUNG: To hear you lay this out, it sounds like a no-brainer. Why haven’t we been doing this already?

ADELAJA: We were slow to realize the challenge that we face as a nation in securitizing our energy supply, and I think the nation has finally woken up. I have to say that national policy, while supportive, has never really been aggressive in support of renewable energy. I remember 30 years ago, the United States was one of the leaders in the world in renewable energy, and our national policies for a long time were not as aggressive as what the Europeans were doing. The Europeans are way ahead of us now, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we will eventually catch up. I think the goals that are being discussed in Congress with legislation that is being considered now are very aggressive. I think we’re thinking more appropriately about sustainability and carbon footprint now and so that favors renewable energy.

YOUNG: Soji Adelaja directs the Land Policy Institute for Michigan State University. Thank you, sir.

ADELAJA: Thank you.



Link to Land Policy Institute brownfields report in association with Rutgers:

Link to attached PHOTO of wind mills at the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Lackawanna, N.Y.


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