Solar power is helping out the environment in more ways than one. In addition to producing green electricity, solar energy is helping to cure brownfields, or industrial or commercial properties that have been compromised by environmental contamination. The worst of these plots of tarnished land have been designated for special attention by the EPA as part of the federal government’s Superfund program aimed at cleaning up toxic waste.
One such site in California is getting a lot of extra help from solar power. The idea that these otherwise unwanted acres – often in or near urban centers and close to electricity transmission networks – are suitable for solar power is not new, but at the Aerojet Superfund Site near Sacramento, a large, 6-megawatt solar installation is actually powering the clean-up efforts.
Aerojet, an aerospace and defense company, acquired 5,900 acres of former gold mining land in the 1950s. 30 years later, the EPA declared part of the property a Superfund site due to extensive water contamination from industrial pesticides and chemicals threatening the nearby American River. In order to mitigate the environmental damage, billions of gallons of have been pumped out of the ground and carted off to a treatment plant. That is an incredibly energy intensive activity….and energy costs money.
So right there, Aerojet had reason to invest saving money on the remediation project, plus it was looking to use the property beyond clean-up activities and already had portions of land on the property ideal for solar power installations. The EPA was promoting the use of solar power and other green remediation techniques, and the property also fell into the service area of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), a utility heavily involved in promoting solar energy use.
Those three, plus the installer, Solar Power, Inc., made the 6-MW installation happen. In Aerojet’s open and undeveloped land, SMUD saw an opportunity to add significantly to its renewable energy portfolio. The utility put up $13 million of the $20 million needed for installation through a power purchase agreement. Then, Solar Power, Inc. self-financed the first phase of the project when investors got nervous as the housing market crashed in 2008.
The EPA saw an excellent opportunity to further promote the cost-effectiveness of using solar power in environmental remediation. The agency conducted a case study on the project in the hopes of ending that nervousness from investors by proving that turning brownfield into “green” field could be a lucrative venture. So far, the EPA has identified over 14 million acres of contaminated land that could be used for wind or solar power installations, projects that would also create green jobs in communities that sorely need them.
The Aerojet installation, according to the case study, is the largest single-site industrial installation in California and one of the largest in the country. The system consists of 22 individual photovoltaic (PV) arrays that track the sun across the sky each day on 40 acres of land. The EPA estimates that in its first year of operation, the Aerojet installation will offset 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions and three tons each of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
Given the success of this project, Aerojet has formed an Executive Sustainability Council and is working with Solar Power, Inc. and SMUD to develop more renewable energy projects on their property.