Using renewable energy to make good use of polluted land

Developers had a favorite saying  before the real estate crash. It was almost a daily refrain when I was a real estate reporter.

"Invest in land. They're not making any more of it."

Maybe not, but they are recycling it. If government leaders have their way, thousands of contaminated or otherwise unusable sites could become prime real estate for renewable energy. This Bloomberg story  refers to "good for nothing polluted land" becoming good again.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is so hot on the idea that it has published some cool tools and data that show Brownfields, landfills, contaminated sites, abandoned mines and other property suitable  for solar, wind and other types of clean energy. This spreadsheet highlights sites all across the country, including Central California. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control also is a big fan of such do-overs.

Thousands of acres from Lodi to Bakersfield and from Mariposa to Avila Beach are identified as potential  for solar and other renewables. EPA program analyst Lura Matthews, who heads up the EPA's Re-Powering America's Land program, says in a video here in the Phoenix Sun that developers can buy or lease contaminated sites without being liable for contamination they don't cause, or that was there previously.

These sites are  desirable because they frequently come with power lines, transmission capacity, rights of way in place, roads and permits - and without opposition from nearby property owners and environmentalists who also want the property reused.

Matthews said that renewable energy companies will team up with developers or other entitites to develop the sites, or entirely new business models are being created. Here's an EPA fact sheet on the program, and some case studies:

New Rifle mill site in Colorado, where solar energy powers wastewater reclamation at a former Uranium processing site, and Pemaco Superfund site in Maywood, CA, where solar PV powers a soil and groundwater treatment system at Superfund site and rooftop solar offsets power costs of water.

This seems to be an ideal marriage. Pairing bad land with good clean energy would help California meets its 33 percent renewables goal, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs. It would eliminate or at lessen conflicts over habitat and prime farm land.

Converting Useless Land To Productive Property

For more than a decade, the 160-acre Crazy Horse Sanitary Landfill was a repository of some pretty icky stuff. So much rubber, oil and solvents were dumped on the property five miles outside Salinas that it was declared a Superfund site and closed to the public in 2009.

More than 500 miles to the southeast is the infamous Stringfellow landfill in Riverside County, where 34 million gallons of acid, solvent, heavy metal and pesticide-manufacturing byproducts were dumped over 17 acres from 1956 to 1972. In 1983, it achieved the dubious distinction of California's most serious hazardous waste site, and today contains not one, not two but three groundwater extraction and treatment systems operated by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

It's too bad those properties are so polluted that they can't be put to good use. Or can they? In an intriguing study, the federal government is assessing the possibility of developing renewable-energy sources, including wind and solar power, on those sites and 24 others. A total of five contaminated or potentially contaminated sites totaling almost 29,000 acres in California are being reviewed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy are evaluating Superfund, brownfields, former landfill or mining sites and even former gas stations through the new "Re-Powering America's Land Initiative."

It is hoped that some of the blighted property could be used to generate solar, wind, biomass or geothermal power. "These studies are the first step to transforming these sites from eyesores today to community assets tomorrow," Mathy Stanislaus, an EPA assistant administrator said.

Here's a link to the original press release, and one to a list of sites being studied.

This isn't a new idea. Restoration of brownfields is a serious mission of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has restored sites to commercial use. But using them as power sources is not as common, although a six-megawatt solar array powers the restoration of an Aerojet General Corporation Superfund dump near Sacramento. And in Chicago, the Exelon City Solar facility - built on an abandoned commercial site called a "brownfield" - is the largest urban solar power plant in the United States.

The Superfund toxic landfills are pretty horrible. The environmental protection regulators call them "the most complex, uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites identified by the EPA for cleanup." Brownfields aren't much better: "They are properties at which expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence of contaminants."

Double Ick.

But toxic sites can be ideal for clean energy. "They often can leverage existing utility infrastructure, and this redevelopment may be allowed under existing zoning, " federal officials said in a news release.

The former Fort Ord military base in Marina is the largest side being assessed in California. The most remote is 253 acres in tiny Alpine County. The former open-pit sulfur mine is at 7,000 feet elevation on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.

This really is a great idea. California has one of the most ambitious renewable-power mandates in the nation, and targeting tainted soil that can't be used for anything else toward that effort makes sense.

Video by State Department of Toxic Substances Control