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Can Photovoltaics Create a Sunny Future for Brownfields?

Much has been written about the economic potential of alternative energy. So the proposal to build a 7,000-acre solar farm in Riverside County near Blythe struck me as notably promising. The new plant would be capable of generating 1,000 Mw, or more than all the photovoltaics that have been so far installed in California, according to a recent New York Times article    

Here's another wrinkle in the idea of photovoltaics as land use: Reusing brownfields as solar energy farms. That's the proposal put forward by a pair of Northeastern companies, who claim that formerly shunned lands can be profitably reused as "surface area" for fields of photovoltaic panels. This strategy would create a vector of two forward-looking causes in land use: Finding new uses for contaminated and unproductive (translate as "non-tax-generating") real estate while finding adequate acreage for photovoltaics to soak up the natural goodness of sunlight and make it into cheap (or at least competitively priced) electricity.

The proponents are Opel Solar, Inc. of Shelton, Ct., and Truenorth Solar & Environmental, L.L.C. of Toronto, Ontario. Some eye-opening numbers from the companies' press release (warning: I have not independently verified these numbers):

"The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that site cleanup revenue, for the companies doing the clean-up, can amount to approximately $6-8 billion annually as experts forecast that there may be as many as 4,000 brownfields in the United States, roughly the equivalent of 30,000 football fields. Add in Superfund sites and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act sites and the total jumps to more than 14 million acres that could be redeveloped as renewable energy sites."

I have some dollars-and-cents questions for Opel Solar Chairman Leon Pierhal. (I've put out several requests for an interview, and I‘ll file a follow-up report when I get a better sense of how the whole thing "pencils out.")

For the time being, here are some of my basic questions/quandaries:

Do we need to clean up these sites before reusing them as solar energy farms? That costs money. The commonest and, arguably, most easily remediate type of contamination in soil is petrochemicals (I.e. old gas stations, underground storage tanks and drilling rigs, etc) which can cost up to $25 per square foot to clean up. That's a reasonable cost for high-end development such as regional malls, big hotels, and Class A office buildings that can reliably throw off a lot of cash down the road. In some cases where the stuff is really awful, such as carcinogens, developers can sometimes "encapsulate" the crud by laying a sandwich of sand and asphalt on top of it. Add to that the cost of land, or the cost of leasing it.

So, this is my simplistic formula: Profit must be equal to, or greater than, (the cost of remediation) + (cost of PV equipment) + (cost of land). Granted, those numbers will likely vary widely from place to place.

Hopefully, those numbers would work in Arizona, where we could blanket the entire state just to make enough energy to keep air conditioners humming in Southern California. Northern California, for its part, could use Nevada for similar purposes. It's a win-win-win-win! (Just kidding….)  

 

--Morris Newman

 

Correction Appended.

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