EPA Releases a Report on its RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative

Sunday, November 11, 2012, by Drew Hargrove

The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) recently posted a report, documenting an increase in the number of renewable energy projects installed on contaminated land. The report is associated with EPA’s RE-powering America’s Land Initiative, which provides incentives for renewable energy on contaminated land, such as landfills, mines, Brownfields, and Superfund sites.  The report states:

While the proportion of renewable energy projects on contaminated lands is relatively small, RE-Powering is seeing a market trend, showing that this land development strategy is gaining momentum.

When the RE-Powering initiative began in 2008, there were only sixteen renewable energy projects on contaminated land—now, there are sixty.  The report indicates that twenty-four of the sites are privately owned.  A vast majority of the projects (forty-nine) are solar energy projects.  

Contaminated lands seem to have tremendous potential as sites for renewable energy projects.  EPA estimated that there are almost fifteen million acres of contaminated land that could be used for approximately 490,000 renewable energy sites.  In furthering its RE-Powering initiative, EPA has provided a Google Earth interactive map that shows the location of contaminated areas provides supplemental information for each contaminated site.  There are both state and federal incentives for such projects.  Information on North Carolina’s incentives can be found here.  However, according to EPA’s recent report, there are no renewable energy projects on contaminated land in North Carolina.

Are contaminated sites the answer to land use issues associated with large renewable energy projects?  It would seem that there would be fewer competing interests if the land has little value for other uses.  In fact, a recent court case illustrates how valuable contaminated lands may be to large renewable energy projects.   In Western Watersheds Project v. Salazar, a federal court dismissed a challenge to the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of a $2.1 billion solar energy project being constructed in the Mojave Desert.  Plaintiff’s brought suit under several environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act.  Plaintiff claimed, among other things, that the agency failed to determine and weigh the solar project’s impact on desert tortoises, a threatened species in the area.  While the court’s decision signaled a “win” for the solar project, the case illustrates the range of obstacles that large renewable energy projects face.  For example, the owner of the solar project, BrightSource Energy, spent over $56 million to protect the desert tortoise.     

While the Endangered Species Act is not a land use law, it certainly has land use implications, which are often controversial.  But, what makes Salazar interesting, in light of the EPA’s recent report, is that land in the desert, at least historically, has been viewed as having little “value.” But, the growing interest in the desert as a valuable ecosystem creates an inherent conflict amongst environmental interests—in Salazar, the solar project indirectly helps the tortoise by reducing greenhouse gases, yet destroys its habitat at the same time. 

Another example of the internal conflict between wildlife interests and renewable energy interests can be found here in North Carolina.   In North Carolina, wind projects have faced stiff opposition, stemming from concern over potential bird collisions.  Regarding the Pantego Wind Energy project in eastern North Carolina, some are particularly concerned with the projects impact on bald eagles.  Recently, a new wind farm project was approved, but it is unclear whether this new project will succeed where others have failed.  

Contaminated land offers great value as a site for renewable energy.  But even contaminated land may be subject to competing wildlife protection interests.