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.
Included in the 4,100 sites are five million acres suitable for photovoltaic or concentrated solar power development, and 500,000 acres for wind power.
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.
The EPA and NREL are set this month to announce a formal partnership to conduct detailed feasibility studies at 13 contaminated sites, Swingle said. The goal, she said, is to determine what would be required, both technologically and economically, to clean and reuse the sites to house renewable energy projects.
The EPA has also identified 15 abandoned hardrock mines, located mostly in the West, where it has rated wind-energy potential to be excellent, outstanding or superb, said Shahid Mahmud, co-chairman of the federal agency's national mining team. The next step is to study the contamination levels at each site, with the idea of promoting them to the energy
industry as suitable for reuse.
"We want to push these contaminated sites and really encourage these things to happen," he said, "because the sooner we can get it done the better off we are from the environmental and climate change perspective."
This approach appeals to the wind-power industry, "Because at the end of the day the No. 1 priority from the developer's perspective is the wind resource itself," said Christine Real De Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association.
"There's no reason why (wind farms) would not be compatible with a lot of industrial sites," she said.
The EPA in November will kick off a series of five national workshops to allow state and local leaders, renewable energy developers and conservation groups to brainstorm. "The idea is to get them all together and say, 'Okay, we have all this great (disturbed) land, we don't want to see
development of greenfield sites, what do we do next?' " Swingle said. The kickoff meeting is scheduled in Detroit, in part because Michigan has some of the best brownfield redevelopment potential.
Researchers this year identified 44,000 acres of brownfield sites in the state that are suitable for harvesting wind and solar power, according to a study conducted by Michigan State University's Land Policy Institute and the National Center for Neighborhood and Brownfields Redevelopment at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
If each site was redeveloped with solar arrays and wind farms, according to the study, they could produce an estimated 5,855 megawatts of electricity--enough to power 1.8 million homes, or roughly half the homes in Michigan.
"These are sites where you're not going to have much resistance for reuse, in areas where they really need jobs," Soji Adelaja, director of MSU's Land Policy Institute in East Lansing, Mich. "It's a no-brainer concept."
Indeed, legal challenges to renewable energy projects have been a huge roadblock, particularly on federal land.
Example: Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy Inc. last month scrapped plans to build a solar power plant on 5,130 acres in the Mojave Desert in southern California after months of protest from environmental groups concerned that the project would threaten important habitat for bighorn sheep.
Recognizing the importance of proper siting, the Bureau of Land Management has embarked on a groundbreaking pilot project in Arizona to locate suitable industrial sites for renewable energy.
The BLM asked state and county leaders, private landowners and conservation groups in May to nominate contaminated or disturbed sites in the state that would be suitable for solar power. A total of 46 sites covering at least 25,000 acres have been nominated, ranging from gravel
pits to landfills, said Terri Raml, BLM's project manager for the Restoration Design Energy Project.
The agency plans to survey each parcel, and then craft a single environmental impact statement that establishes the criteria for reclaiming disturbed and contaminated sites in the state before reusing them for renewable energy. The BLM, which has a backlog of more than 400 wind and solar permit applications, plans to make these sites available to solar-power developers, Raml said.
"It just makes sense to explore using these sites," Raml said. "It eliminates environment concerns. It provides another land base to be able to site these projects on lands that don't have characteristics of undisturbed desert. That's a big benefit."
Scott Streater is an environmental journalist living in Colorado