Brownfields into Greensites

When people think about the emerging green economy, the vision is typically one of leaving behind the old dirty industries in favor of new landscapes dotted with gleaming “clean” factories. Sometimes, however, there is really no leaving behind old sites, but rather a redevelopment and conversion of them.

Suitable locations for wind farms, solar factories, and other facilities are hard to find. First, after two centuries of industrialization, the built environment leaves few untouched places. Second, conservationists worry that a new wave of factories will encroach on remaining scraps of wildlife habitat. Finally, NIMBY sentiments can stymie even the greenest of investments—witness the opposition to offshore wind turbines at Cape Cod.

It is not surprising, then, that there is increasing interest in locating wind farms and solar plants at so-called “brownfields”—abandoned and often contaminated industrial sites, landfills, and mines. Clean-up and redevelopment efforts will take considerable time and investment. But the advantage of many brownfields is that they are typically already connected to infrastructure such as roads or the power grid, and thus tied into the local, regional, and national economy.

How much steel to produce these wind turbines?

For example, in 2006, wind turbines started operating at a former Bethlehem Steel mill at Lackawanna near Buffalo, New York. The wind farm, Steel Winds, currently generates enough electricity to power 9,000 homes, with an expansion planned.

In Newton, Iowa [PDF], the site of a former Maytag washer and dryer factory was redeveloped into a wind energy manufacturing hub. TPI Composites, a wind turbine blade manufacturer, now makes fiberglass blades there. And Trinity Structural Towers opened a plant in February 2009 to produce steel and concrete wind turbine towers.

In a twist, renewable energy projects can also provide the power needed to carry out clean-up of contaminated sites, to render them safe for alternative use. This is happening at several sites in Arizona, California, and Colorado.

This “brownfields to greensites” transformation holds major potential. Teaming up, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have mapped close to 4,100 contaminated sites in the United States—stretching over 5.5 million acres or about 0.2 percent of the country’s total territory—that could be utilized for wind, solar, or biomass development. Fully developed, they could eventually produce as much as 950,000 megawatts, or more than the country’s total electricity consumption. Additional such sites are being identified with geothermal potential.

For communities that fell victim to deindustrialization when steel mills and other manufacturing plants shut down, the redevelopment of brownfield sites also offers some badly needed new employment. Still, it will take time before a significant portion of the lost jobs is replaced. The Lackawanna steel mill once employed thousands. The Steel Winds site currently offers 35 jobs in construction, operations, and maintenance. (The jobs building the wind turbines and components are elsewhere.) Similarly, the old Maytag factory offered incomes to some 1,800 people. TPI Composites and Trinity Structural Towers have to date created 470 jobs.

As the renewable energy sector expands, job numbers will climb. Another concern is that the new jobs aren’t necessarily always well-paying jobs. High Road or Low Road? Job Quality in the New Green Economy [PDF], a February 2009 report by Good Jobs First, points out that TPI Composites—despite generous state subsidies—pays its workers in Newton, Iowa, only an average of $13.47 per hour, far below the $19 that Maytag used to pay.  (Trinity, by contrast, is paying an average of $18 per hour.)

This does not mean that renewable job development isn’t worth pursuing. Many renewables companies offer well-paying jobs. But it does mean that local, state, and federal governments need to pair business incentives with a requirement for decent wages and overall strong labor standards. Marrying environmental and social needs can be a win-win strategy.

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