US ‘Brightfields’: The answer to low cost CSP siting

Cost-effective, pre-approved, socially acceptable land replete with infrastructure is available for the development of solar energy projects in the United States. So why aren’t CSP developers jumping at the opportunity

The US Department of Energy has kicked off a national initiative to turn brownfield sites throughout the country into “brightfields,” with renewable energy highlighting the revitalization efforts. While photovoltaic seems a better solar energy fit at first glance, the DOE has brownfield sites large enough to accommodate the needs of CSP developers as well.  

The DOE’s Brightfields Initiative is a new program focused on converting contaminated sites into usable land by bringing solar energy and high-tech solar manufacturing jobs to properties few other developers would touch. Key goals include placing PV arrays that can reduce cleanup costs, integrating solar energy systems as part of property redevelopment, and housing solar manufacturing plants on brownfield sites.

The EPA tracks 490,000 sites and 15 million acres of potentially contaminated land in the US. Of that, 917,000 acres has long-term protection clearance after being cleaned, and at least 3.2 million acres of abandoned mine land is available that usually fits the needs of solar providers. More than 70 EPA-tracked sites are currently designated “high potential” options for CSP development.

Excellent CSP potential, but few takers

Multiple solar options are being touted as applicable to the brownfield sites available, but PV systems in particular have seemed to best fit the sites, so far. While the southwestern US offers excellent potential for CSP and PV development, demand generated by renewable standards in the Mid-Atlantic region would be better met by PV, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“I think a lot of projects with PV just tend to be smaller, and a lot are placed in more crowded parts of the country like the Northeast, where land is scarce,” says Lura Matthews, lead program analyst for the EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Land initiative. “We’re not sure why it hasn’t caught on … but many of the sites are appropriate for CSP, and a number have a large amount of acreage. So whether they are super fund sites or abandoned mine land, that is a characteristic that lends itself toward CSP.”

Of 16 success stories highlighted by the DOE for renewable projects on brownfield sites, 10 involve PV solar and a handful have potential for co-generation with locally sourced gases, while none feature CSP. The closest is a 1 MW concentrated PV project by Chevron planned for an old mining site in Questa, N.M.

While a majority of the EPA’s disturbed properties are probably too small to fit the needs of CSP producers, the large sites can be found in the EPA database, which is sortable through an online Google Earth tool, Excel files and GIS formatting. The EPA has also worked with NREL to do screenings of its available sites for different renewable technologies. Characteristics that favor CSP will be noted on available properties when viewed through the search tools.

Considerable cost-savings potential

Many EPA-tracked properties offer thousands of acres of land with few site owners. They offer developers of wind and solar power land where their structures will encounter less aesthetic opposition. These sites also often have important infrastructure already in place, like electric transmission lines, roads and water service, and are already zoned industrial. The costs avoided in new infrastructure capital and zoning approvals can add up.

Some high-acreage sites have had industrial activity on them in the past, and now offer transmission lines in working order with excess capacity on tap. EPA has found local environmental groups are often supporting their efforts to redevelop brownfield properties, Matthews says. Developers can usually count on reduced opposition from environmental or community groups for using these properties for CSP projects. “The community is often excited,” she says.

Whether the grants and ease of access are worth cleanup costs for some of these sites is debatable. For many of the properties, new developers wouldn’t have to shoulder cleanup costs if it has already been mandated of a previous owner that contaminated the land, or the EPA and local government.

Sites that require a lot of cleanup may turn off new developers at first glance, but those with a lot of acreage could allow new energy projects to be located on portions of the site that are free of contaminants, basically quarantining off the bad parts in order to make the site business-ready as soon as possible.

Matthews noted a site in California where contaminated groundwater will require decades of cleanup, yet a 6 MW photovoltaic solar project is scheduled to go in on part of the site that’s safe. And developers that fear liability risk for continued cleanup and contamination issues on brownfield sites can rest easier knowing liability relief from federal environmental laws is available.  

Detailed maps of sites with CSP generation potential are available for seven states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.

To respond to this article, please write to: Bob Moser

Or write to the editor: Rikki Stancich

The issues surrounding CSP project siting and potential Brightfield sites will be discussed by industry experts later this month at CSP Today’s Yield Optimization conference in Denver, Colorado.– Bob Moser

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