Old industrial sites and landfills that have been cleaned to a certain standard — known as "brownfields" — are being used to house clean energy technologies like wind, solar and geothermal, according to a recent story in Scientific American.

Using these undeveloped sites for housing renewable energy technologies is ideal for many reasons. 

Because the land has already been disturbed, there’s no major threat to impacting wildlife, a common concern for environmentalists who don’t want pristine habitats muddied with giant wind farms.

"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."

Secondly, since most of the sites are already connected to the power grid, there’s no need to build costly transmission lines to bring renewable power to nearby cities.

Finally, there are literally thousands of contaminated sites to choose from across the country.

According to the EPA and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), nearly 4,100 contaminated sites deemed economically suitable for wind power, solar power and biomass exist today, with maps for contaminated sites with geothermal-power potential coming soon.

If these sites were fully developed, they would have the potential to produce 950,000 megawatts — more than the country's total power needs in 2007, according to the EPA.

"The potential is pretty amazing," said Pam Swingle, an environmental scientist with the EPA's RE-Powering America's Lands initiative.

As a result of their energy potential, the government is stepping up its efforts to convert these once-contaminated sites into lean, green, energy-making machines.

According to Swingle, the EPA and the NREL are combining efforts to conduct feasibility studies at 13 contaminated sites to determine what needs to be done to make the sites usable for renewable energy projects.

In addition, the EPA has located 15 abandoned hardrock mines (mostly in the West) that may be ideal sites for wind farms.

"We want to push these contaminated sites and really encourage these things to happen," said Shahid Mahmud, cochairman of the federal agency's national mining team. "Because the sooner we can get it done, the better off we are from the environmental and climate change perspective."

So far, both the industry and environmentalists stand to gain in the deal, a rare win-win for two sides that rarely agree. In addition, refurbishing abandoned sites into clean energy centers will create jobs all across the country.

“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.” 

Contamination transformation
Contaminated sites being used to house wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal power plants.