GLOBE Foundation

Brown to green: A new use for blighted industrial sites


Courtesy of Courtesy of GLOBE Foundation

The Philadelphia Navy Yard sprawls over 1,200 acres on the banks of the Delaware River, a once-great shipyard now being transformed into a mix of research facilities, corporate offices, and manufacturing plants.

In one remote, seven-acre corner - a nondescript plot of land with a highway bridge towering above it - the Navy Yard's industrial past is palpable. Reeds and an occasional tree sprout among dilapidated buildings of corrugated iron. Crumbling cinder blocks are piled in a corner.

This forgotten corner of the city once served as a landfill and incinerator for the Navy Yard. Shipbuilding and other industrial activities, dating back to 1801, contaminated the site with heavy metals, among other things. Since the Navy built its last ship here in 1970, the area has sat largely unused.

But no longer: Soon these seven acres will be home to the largest solar photovoltaic installation in Philadelphia. Construction is scheduled to start this summer on the 1.3-megawatt, $5.6 million Navy Yard solar array, with a target completion date of early 2012.

The facility will be capable of powering about 300 homes, and will create 50 construction jobs and 10 permanent jobs, according to developers.The Navy Yard solar array is just one of a growing number of projects across the U.S. that fall into the small category of energy ideas that appear to have little to no downside: turning brownfields - or sites contaminated or disturbed by previous industrial activity - into green energy facilities.

Among the successfully completed brown-to-green projects are a wind farm at the former Bethlehem Steel Mill in Lackawanna, New York; a concentrating solar photovoltaic array on the tailings pile of a former molybdenum mine in Questa, New Mexico; solar panels powering the cleanup systems at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Superfund site in northern California; and the U.S. Army's largest solar array atop a former landfill in Fort Carson, Colorado.

'It's an untapped opportunity to not just deliver cleanup to some of these contaminated or previously contaminated sites, but to recycle our industrial legacy in making progress toward a cleaner energy future,' said Chase Huntley, a policy advisor on energy and climate change for the nonprofit Wilderness Society.

Huntley's group is interested in preserving the country's remaining wild lands, and every solar or wind project that rises from an industrial wasteland is one that won't be built on a pristine ridgeline or tract of desert. Another plus is that public opposition to renewable energy projects on blighted land is highly unlikely.

Though practical considerations abound, the potential involved in taking contaminated land and putting it to use as solar or wind farms is enormous. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 490,000 brownfields exist nationwide, largely concentrated in formerly industrialized regions.

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