Renewable energy such as solar and wind power has a lower power generation per area compared to the traditional coal-fired and nuclear power, and the development of a large solar plant often requires a significant land area. The US has been vigorously promoting green energy recently, including solar and wind power, and developers have successively targeted polluted brownfields in the hopes of endowing new purposes for the discarded lands while achieving green energy goals.
As pointed out by the previous study of the Brookings Institution, a single solar plant that strives to achieve the same power generation to that of a fossil fuel power plant will require 10 times the land area of the latter.
Hence, “vast land occupancy” has always been a controversial issue for renewable energy, which may result in fights for land areas between the people, or interference with environmental protection. To achieve a win-win outcome, most green energy plans select sites outside of forests, farmlands, or urban planning areas, and are optimistic about discarded and polluted land.
According to the data of the EPA, the US has established renewable energy in 417 locations as of 2020, and the EPA estimates that there are 44 million acres (approx. 17.8 million hectares) of discarded industrial land that can set up green energy. Energy consulting firm Rystad Energy also predicts that the carbon-free economy program proposed by Biden would require another 8.5 million acres (approx. 3.43 million hectares) of land for solar installations, which are much larger than the national area of the Netherlands.
Carlton Waterhouse, the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management at EPA, commented that the revitalization of these polluted land is critical, and the establishment of renewable energy on polluted land not only helps with society greenification, but also introduces economic benefits, as well as responds to climate change.
These discarded brownfields that experienced industrial pollution are actually enticing to distributed green energy facilities, as they are typically close to power grids and infrastructures. New Jersey, the crowded state that had once released incentives on brownfield revitalization, has proposed a financing plan for such areas.
New Jersey is currently implementing 25 solar brownfield projects that occupy more than 1/4 of public solar, and one of them is the decommissioned chemical plant of Ciba-Geigy that is used to establish 28.9MW of solar power. The particular plant was previously in lawsuit troubles due to pollution.
For the developers however, the preparation and insurance prior to the establishment may be relatively exorbitant, while the soil and geologic structure must also be inspected for stability. For the residents, there may not be as many job opportunities compared to the level that factories and mines offered in the past, and the several hundreds of jobs that emerge during construction may be left with less than 10 permanent positions after completion.
However, this is merely a small segment of land revitalization and economic diversification. It is not all that easy to develop ground sites. In Taiwan for instance, site selections are mostly centralized on salt lands, areas of severe subsidence, water spaces, landfills, and polluted lands. Farmlands are typically excluded from such developments because of the need to respect the environmental protection laws and avoid controversies. The Environmental Protection Administration in Taiwan had revised the “Principles of Review Procedures for PV Facility Installation on Polluted Land” on January 21st, and had incorporated lands that are either undergoing or have completed the pollution mitigation process into the applicable range of solar power. Estimation shows that over 600 hectares of polluted land can be used to set up solar power.
(Cover photo source: Flickr/Michael Mees CC BY 2.0)