By Matthew Popkin April 3, 2023
The United States industrial revolution fundamentally reshaped our economy but left behind a legacy of brownfields.1 Brownfields are lands that are potentially contaminated, underutilized and often neglected. Walk through almost any community in the United States and you will come across a site — an old factory, an abandoned strip mall, a closed landfill, a shuttered coal mine or a decommissioned power plant — where redevelopment, reuse or even just access to it is complicated by its past.
This is no exaggeration: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are over 450,000 brownfields across the country.2 But many of these sites — even those that have sat idle for decades — may have a promising future in supporting the clean energy transition. And now, there are new federal incentives to make this a reality.
Repurposing brownfields to host clean energy is a great way to tackle several problems at once. From coal mines to oil fields, our energy system has always required land. Now, our energy system will increasingly require land for solar and wind farms. Over the next 10 years, we will have to build out significant solar capacity to help meet our clean energy needs.3
Solar panels on 22,000 square miles of the United States — about the size of Lake Michigan — could power the entire country.4
Deploying clean energy (typically solar) on brownfields to convert them into “brightfields” is an often-overlooked opportunity with multiple community benefits. Brightfields sustainably reuse already developed land and reduce the need to build on undeveloped green space and agricultural land. This reinvests in brownfields, such as closed landfills5 and Superfund sites,6 that often lack options for redevelopment.
Brightfields also help address past environmental injustices by safely repurposing contaminated sites often in or near lower-income, marginalized communities. Plus, brightfields bring energy jobs back to energy communities, including everything from small former steel towns like Weirton, West Virginia7 to energy hubs like Houston, Texas.8
The potential of brightfields is significant. RMI estimates that just 4,300 closed landfills across the United States could host 63 GW of solar capacity,9 enough to power the entire state of South Carolina. In Texas alone, there are more than 94,000 acres of closed landfills that could generate almost 27 GW of electricity.
And the U.S. EPA has pre-screened over 190,000 sites for brightfields consideration.10 With only 502 brownfields redeveloped to date with 2.5 GW of clean energy, we’ve just started to scratch the surface of what’s possible.
Brightfields can also shape a more equitable future. Research highlights that “brownfields are disproportionately located in impoverished and minority neighborhoods”11 and that there is a “direct relationship between communities of color and sites that may present significant environmental and human health hazards.”12 Fortunately, renewed attention through reuse planning, community solar and workforce training can help support a more equitable future.
It is critical that local leaders, planners and developers consider a site’s racial and socioeconomic context when planning for reuse; brightfields can bring new investment and attention to sites that may have been neglected for decades.
Community solar programs, like Ann Arbor, Michigan’s proposed Wheeler Center Solar Park, can directly connect residents to clean energy generated on closed landfills nearby to reduce their energy bills.13, 14
Pairing workforce development programs with brightfields redevelopment, like Houston’s EmPowering Solar Jobs Program,15 can also train local workers for the energy and environmental jobs of the future. Brightfields cannot undo past harms, but when planned intentionally, they can be part of the solution.
The good news is that brightfields are poised to play a sizable role in an equitable energy transition thanks to new and enhanced federal incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. For the first time ever, the federal government now offers additional tax credit “adders”16 that incentivize clean energy in some areas where brownfields are most common: “energy communities” and/or low-income communities.
These adders offer a bonus tax credit of 10–20% on top of the recently enhanced clean energy tax credits — a potential game-changer for complex projects that typically cost more to do right. Together, these two incentives should shift where new clean energy investments are prioritized.
With the promising prospect of available land and new federal incentives, you may be thinking there’s a catch. There is. Brightfields are more complex projects because of polluted site histories and related health and safety considerations. This may increase the costs and timeline of procurement, design, permitting and construction. Fortunately, new incentives alter the equation for brightfields, which may allow for more complex projects to move forward that previously struggled to pencil out financially.
To help communities strategically advance brightfields across the United States, RMI partnered with the Kansas State University’s Technical Assistance to Brownfields Program17 to launch the first-ever Brightfields Accelerator. This program will include free support, tools and other resources to help local governments, site owners and community groups make smart choices about the reuse of brownfield sites and prepare for clean energy investments.
The Brightfields Accelerator builds directly on the American Cities Climate Challenge’s Renewables Accelerator,18 which RMI co-led to help cities buy over 500 MW of clean energy. Brightfields can help communities of all shapes and sizes benefit from the clean energy transition.
Too many sites in America are defined by their past; it’s time for communities to define a brighter future.
To learn more about how you can support RMI’s Brightfields Accelerator, contact Matthew Popkin at email@example.com.
About the Author
Matthew Popkin is a manager at RMI (formerly Rocky Mountain Institute) and leads the Brightfields Accelerator. He specializes in landfill and community solar and energy transition financing. Matthew is based in Longmont, Colorado and has a Master of Public Policy from the University of Maryland.