When the Bethlehem Steel mill in Lackawanna, N.Y., finally shut its doors for good eight years ago, it took away thousands of jobs and left behind a polluted and unsightly mess.
But in 2006, while the idle grain elevators and coke ovens sat rusting on the banks of Lake Erie, something unexpected happened. Wind turbines began springing up on a 30-acres section of the former Superfund site in this Buffalo suburb.
Today, the eight turbines at the Steel Wind project crank out enough clean, green electricity to power more than 6,000 homes in western New York, and the 400-foot-tall windmills have become a visual landmark. First Wind, the Newton, Mass.–based company that operates the wind farm with BQ Energy, plans to install six more windmills at the site.
Lackawanna is glad the turbines are there. "We embrace this project wholeheartedly," said Ralph Miranda, the city's director of development. Steel Wind is one of the first, but President Obama and Congress are pushing to identify thousands of contaminated landfills and abandoned mines that could be repurposed to house wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal power plants.
Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy, with the Energy Information Administration predicting 70 percent growth over the next two decades. But even with that expansion, renewable supplies will provide only a sliver--roughly 5 percent--of the nation's energy needs by 2030, according to the EIA.
Using already disturbed lands would help avoid conflicts between renewable energy developers and environmental groups concerned about impacts to wildlife habitat. These conflicts have stalled some high-profile projects despite the fact that renewable energy sources do not produce
heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxides, the primary greenhouse gas driving global warming.
Known as "brownfields," old industrial sites and landfills that have been cleaned to a certain standard, often languish for years waiting redevelopment. Most are already connected to the electric power grid, eliminating the need to build miles of costly transmission lines across
pristine lands to bring the power to market.
"In the next decade there's going to be a lot of renewable energy built, and all that has to go somewhere," said Jessica Goad, an energy and climate change policy fellow for The Wilderness Society. "We don't want to see these industrial facilities placed on land that's pristine. We love the idea of brownfields for renewable energy development because it relieves the (development) pressure on undisturbed places."
There are many contaminated sites nationwide to choose from. The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have identified nearly 4,100 contaminated sites deemed economically suitable for wind and solar power development, as well as biomass. Similar maps are expected to be released this month for contaminated sites with geothermal-power potential.
These sites, if fully developed, have the potential to produce 950,000 megawatts--more than the country's total power needs in 2007, according to EPA data.
"The potential is pretty amazing," said Pam Swingle, an environmental scientist with the EPA's RE-Powering America's Lands initiative, which was formed last year to coordinate federal efforts to encourage the use of contaminated sites for renewable energy.