Cities lighten up brownfields with solar panels

There's a quick, cheaper way to deal with toxic brownfield sites in cities: add solar panels.

There's a quick, cheaper way to green brownfield sites -- the abandoned, toxic, industrial and commercial lands that plague cities -- without the expense of redeveloping the site: solar panels.

The Dirt reports on the national Brownfields conference and how cities are incorporating solar into their brownfields.

Chicago, for example, has the largest urban solar plant in the U.S., with 32,000 PV panels that generate 10-megawatts of electricity. The plant, City Solar, was built by Exelon on top of a brownfield site.

Dave Graham, who works on the city’s brownfield program, said the City Solar project just “fell into our laps.” He was called into a meeting in the mayor’s office with representatives from Exelon and SunPower, and found they wanted to create a massive solar farm on a derelict brownfield site.


Heavily contaminated sites can cost up to $150,000 per acre to clean up. The West Pullman site for City Solar, which “has a variety of issues,” would have cost $20 million alone to clean up, “something no one in the city wanted to invest in.” As a result, Exelon simply put solar panels on top of the site, leaving the worst soils untouched underground. In some cases, where PV structures need to be installed, the team did actually discover underground storage tanks, which they then removed.

So while sites like this aren't getting much cleaner, they'll at least be put to good use.

Philadelphia wants to follow suit by using a Solar America Cities grant to help get more solar panels up on its brownfields. But with cities struggling financially , cities are hoping for more private investors for these projects, as The Dirt points out:

[Kristin] Sullivan [of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for Sustainability] said Philadelphia hopes to encourage private sector developers to take the lead on creating solar power plants, even on city-owned lands. This makes more financial sense for the city then owning and operating its own solar power facilities.

The city government will also soon release a solar hotspots map covering underutilized centers. The idea is to identify places, including brownfields, with little or no shading issues.

But what are the costs-benefits of adding solar panels compared to developing land into an attractive public space and adding an asset to the neighborhood? Because while these projects are better than the site's current use, they don't solve the problem of blight associated with brownfields. Is there a way to cleanup and develop the brownfields and get the energy benefits of solar panels?

Maybe that's asking too much .

Photo: Chicago's giant brownfield solar plant via Zol87/Flickr

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