The Sustainable Business Case for Solar on Brownfields
March 24, 2022
By John A. Kinch, PhD
Executive Director of Michigan Energy Options
KBEI Executive in Residence
Michigan could meet much—maybe even most—of its solar development goals by siting those shiny panels on our former industrial and mine sites, closed landfills, routinely flooded farm fields, endless acres of parking lots, highway roadsides, contaminated and underutilized places, and brownfields of many kinds. Locations that I often collectively call marginal lands.
How much solar could fit on marginal lands? We don’t know yet. But a group of researchers from several top-tier universities is working through that question right now. That said, however, for years the consensus within the solar sector (i.e., utilities, developers, governments) has been that marginal lands add a layer of expense and hassle to an already challenging undertaking. Today, in the grand scheme, the United States is transitioning out of more than 100 years of fossil fuel domination of the energy sector. We’re replacing this entrenched infrastructure with renewables, storage, and energy efficiency—while the impact of climate change is escalating. And we’re trying to make this rapid clean energy transition over mere decades. This work is hard already. Don’t make it harder.
Except—solar on brownfields doesn’t have to be “harder.” In fact, it’s a sustainable solution hiding in plain sight. From the State of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE): “Brownfield properties are those in which the redevelopment or reuse of the property may be complicated by the presence or perception of contamination. Revitalizing and redeveloping these properties protects the environment, reuses existing infrastructure, minimizes urban sprawl and creates economic opportunities.”
In Michigan, EGLE, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, oversees brownfields, their management and containment, clean up, and reuse. Other state and local agencies also are involved. Jim Tischler, of the State Land Bank Authority, which has brownfields in its holdings as well, estimates Michigan has more than 50,000 brownfields. Michigan has 83 counties, 1,240 townships, 275 cities and 258 villages. 2 By my math, just about everybody’s got a brownfield. Or two. Many would be right for solar.
The Economy Case
As of the end of 2021, Michigan had approximately 500 megawatts of solar installed, which includes large-scale and distributed, often in the form of rooftop. (Rooftop solar, let it be said, is also key to our clean energy future.) Consumers Energy is proposing for itself an additional 8,000 megawatts of solar coming online by 2040. 3 That’s nearly 500 additional megawatts a year—year over year—to reach that ambition.
And this is just Consumers. DTE has similar goals. And let’s not forget the 60 municipal and cooperative utilities across the state, many of which are also adding solar. Finally, factor in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Futures report, which posits by 2035 that 40% of the country’s electricity supply could come from solar. That would be 1 million megawatts. Michigan’s portion of that national goal, as my colleague David Gard has calculated, would be 26,000 megawatts. That equates to more than 200-square miles of solar “fields,” “farms,” or “parks,” as they are variously known. Thus, the question I get not infrequently in front of audiences: Where are we going to put it all?
Today, the preferred siting of large solar projects in our state—tens of megawatts, happening now—is on acres of relatively flat land with proximity to the electricity transmission and distribution system. Think: Michigan cornfield. While there’s technically enough of this type of land to site solar, land costs are increasingly adding to the expense side of solar builds, and developers are becoming keenly aware of this. Also, locating solar in agricultural communities is a complex topic, with vocal proponents and opponents.
But palatable alternative siting options already exist. Other states have been prioritizing such sites for years. Raise your hand if locating solar panels atop a closed landfill near where you live sounds like a good idea.
The Environmental Case
My nonprofit Michigan Energy Options (MEO) has had the good fortune of working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and other agencies over the last few years to develop “environmentally sensitive” solar projects on State property. The DNR’s mission is stewardship of natural and cultural places. Not solar energy. And, yet this agency recognizes the existential threat that climate change poses to its parks, recreation areas, and fish hatcheries. In reducing its own reliance on fossil fuels for electricity, DNR is lessening its carbon footprint. The agency now has a dozen solar projects completed or in motion, with others planned, including leasing property for potential large-scale solar on two former mine sites that it owns.
Related, the State of Michigan has completed a year-long exercise of investigating ways of making the Great Lake State carbon neutral by 2050. Hundreds of stakeholders participated in workgroups on topics ranging from EVs to environmental justice to forest sequestration and solar power. Among the draft recommendations for energy production to the Governor’s Council on Climate Solutions is one on siting more solar on State-owned lands and assisting local governments in “adopting best practices for siting renewable energy systems within their communities.”
I have been part of this work and want to be clear that this report’s draft recommendation is not saying to site future solar development only in brownfields. However, in the Natural and Working Lands Workgroup, we felt that solar development in productive agricultural fields could/should integrate best practices known as agrivoltaics or co-locating solar. This means where and when possible, solar projects allow for ongoing agricultural usage, such as crops and/or native pollinating flowers and grasses planted between the panel rows, grazing sheep and related activities. Additionally, the State aspires to preserve 30% of Michigan’s natural and working lands by 2030. We need to be smarter about our overall land-use practices. Photovoltaic electric power from the sun, for sake of argument, is unlimited. Our land supply is not.
In 2019, MEO, with partners, created the East Lansing Community Solar Park, which models solar-siting best practices. We developed 345 kilowatts of solar on two acres of a closed, capped, municipal dump. The site includes habitat restoration with native pollinators. We included the community in the project from the start; and 150 of them are also subscribers to the solar park. Working with the Lansing Board of Water & Light, we made customer participation as affordable as we could at the time (though now we have better ways to make community solar more accessible to income-qualified populations). And, importantly, the solar park is going to offset a significant amount of greenhouse gases over its the 30-year life.
According to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Re-Powering America Initiative, current and formerly contaminated lands, landfills, and mine sites “have the potential to supply 1.3 million megawatts of renewable energy across the U.S.” Re-Powering has been tracking solar development on landfills and brownfields for years. As of October 2021, EPA has New York completing 45 projects. New Jersey 66. Massachusetts 128. Michigan 4. One of which is MEO’s. Michigan can, and must, do better.
The Community Case
Why are there so many solar on brownfield projects in states other than Michigan?
Several related answers: A perception that Michigan and the Midwest have open lands to spare unlike the East; solar on brownfields is more expensive without financial incentives and other “de-costing” measures; current utility policy and regulations favor utility-scale solar projects in agricultural lands because of better economics. All worthy points of further explication and exploration. I want to, instead, conclude with what I consider to be a scalable sustainable business model with community multipliers, which we could be doing in Michigan.
New York State’s Build-Ready Program has been identifying and “de-risking” a tranche of brownfields sites for solar development. 9 The first upcoming auction on which solar developers will bid includes former correctional facilities, factories, and mines.
New York is taking an economic, environmental and community liability and flipping it into an asset. A classic sustainable business move. These sites otherwise would be unattractive to the solar marketplace—more expensive to develop and riskier from a regulatory standpoint. But through thoughtful revisions and updates to business-as-usual policies, regulations and actions, these sites are beginning to shine brightly against their competitive set of greenspace properties.
Why is New York doing this? To “facilitate[e] renewable energy development by providing patient capital, community benefits, and coordination across government agencies,” according to a recent webinar presentation. 10 Note this: New York State is not just playing the role of the regulator. The Build-Ready team is bringing shovel-ready projects into play, with multipliers such as benefits to disadvantaged communities and workforce development. For the local communities where this economic revitalization happens come new tax dollars. On top of this, local communities are also turning a blighted space from a cost center into a revenue center through new, green, economic activity. And for the developers in this business deal, they will get incentives to meet extraordinary build costs on these sites. All parties, within this model, stand to gain.
Back here in Michigan, communities are becoming more aware and interested in developing solar on their marginal lands—closed landfills, abandoned industrial sites, parking lots, weedy vacant hardscapes. It shares positive characteristics of “rightsizing” in urban planning design. I receive inquiries almost weekly from economic development agencies, landowners, and local officials about the potential for clean, renewable energy in these places.
Making brownfields the first choice—not the last—for solar
development is our sustainable
option. A market’s out there just waiting for us to answer its call.