Solar Brightfields Make Toxic Land Usable Again

Solar Brightfields
  • Nov 8, 2018

Power produced by solar farms is adding clean, renewable energy to the nation’s total energy mix. And, solar farms can be seen on all sorts of terrain; on fields, vineyards, parking garages, skyscraper roofs, and irrigation ponds; in cities and in the country. 

Solar farms are also being installed on places that no one else wants to use—toxic sites, landfills, old factories, refineries, and former coal mines. These “solar brightfields” are creating a second life for otherwise unwanted land. 

Brownfields Become Brightfields 

A “brownfield” is a former industrial or commercial site that, due to contamination on the land, is difficult to repurpose. Solar farms give these unused, and often unsightly, old areas new life; revitalizing the communities and neighborhoods around them. 

Repurposing brownfields into cleaner, productive areas can be a victory for environmental justice in disadvantaged communities, too. Brownfields are often located in areas where community residents suffer with health problems because they live in a highly polluted environment.   

Landfills Fulfill A New Function 

Once a landfill is full, developers put a physical “cap” on it so the land can be used for another purpose. Depending on the region, landscape, and type of landfill, the cap can consist of a range of materials and structures. Some landfills have been repurposed as parks, green spaces, or sports arenas, but another option is becoming even more popular: using them as sites for solar farms.  

Landfills are usually located near but not too close to municipalities, and are also already fenced off. And, since some landfills also have incinerators, the sites often have connections to the local power grid. 

Did you know that around the U.S., more than 250 renewable energy farms—usually solar—have been sited on landfills? The Northeast is a particularly popular area for repurposing landfills as solar farms, thanks to the fact that land—especially uncontested land—is in short supply. Massachusetts has 102 such installations, New Jersey 25, New York 22, Maryland and Minnesota each have four, and Delaware and Illinois each have two.  

Mining Sunshine Instead of Fossil Fuels 

Perhaps the most justified place to put a solar farm is on top of a closed coal mine. Coal mine sites often leave behind polluted soil and water pools, making them difficult to redevelop. Replacing defunct coal mines with solar farms has already happened in China, but only a few sites in the United States have followed suit so far. 

Challenges include the fact that many mines are in remote areas away from transmission lines. Plus, some mining practices scraped away the ground, making it difficult or costly to install solar sites. While there are some obstacles, there are also some hefty upsides to figuring them out: solar plants are cleaner to run than mines, and renewable energy jobs can help boost the economy of former mining regions that are now struggling. 

A new solar farm in Washington could be a good example to watch. The state is transforming its largest coal-burning strip mine into an enormous solar farm

Challenges aside, the future of solar brightfields is looking promising. Just recently, the state of New York released a new toolkit that municipalities can use to develop solar brightfields to, “…maximize expansion on underutilized lands and increase renewable energy generation.” 

Solar brightfields are making use of unusable, undesirable spaces. They’re an innovation in solar farms, and a classic case of reuse and recycle, on a grand scale. 

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