Contaminated Sites = Renewable Energy Hotspots

To encourage the reuse of contaminated lands for renewable energy production facilities, the U.S. EPA has developed an interactive Google Earth map that tracks these sites and provides information on the potential of each property for biomass energy, solar or wind development.
By Jessica Ebert
The U.S. DOE's Energy Information Administration estimates that the demand for renewable energy will grow by 31 percent over the next 25 years. During that same time period, renewable energy generation is expected to increase by 45 percent. One way to meet the energy needs of a growing population without encroaching on productive farmland is to turn current or previously contaminated sites into renewable energy hotspots.

To that end, the U.S. EPA has teamed with the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory to identify nearly 10,000 contaminated lands and mining sites that hold potential for renewable energy development. To help developers, environmental managers, land managers and local, state and federal energy officials as well as private industry and communities track these sites, the agency has generated interactive maps using Google Earth, a virtual geographic information program. "The EPA is putting renewable energy production on the virtual map," says EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. "Our new interactive Web site encourages states and energy companies to put previously contaminated properties back to work."

The maps merge data collected by the EPA and NREL and screen the sites for criteria including: distance to electrical transmission lines, distance to roads, renewable energy potential and site acreage. Sites with the potential to host a biomass energy facility are broken down into two categories: a biopower facility, which is a site with cumulative biomass resources of 140,000 metric tons per year or greater within 50 miles, or a biorefinery facility, which is a site with cumulative crop residues of 333,000 metric tons per year or greater within 50 miles.

"The EPA looks for opportunities to encourage the cleanup of contaminated sites, recognizing that some contaminated properties have attributes that could make them attractive candidates for the siting of renewable energy production facilities," explains EPA spokeswoman Latisha Petteway. "EPA partnered with the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory to identify candidate sites and make the information publicly accessible."

To access the Google Earth tool, users can follow the step-by-step directions found at: Once Google Earth has been loaded on the computer and the Renewable Energy Interactive Map has been launched, a bright blue, virtual, 3D orb-i.e. the Earth-spins into view. The initial image is a satellite picture of North America.

Navigation tools can be used to zoom in from the continent view to street level. As the outline of the U.S. takes shape, dots peppered across the states are evident. Each circular label represents a contaminated site recognized by the EPA as a potential host for bioenergy, solar or wind power facilities. Zoom in even further, and the individual states become apparent. At this point, clicking on one of the yellow, purple, red, orange or gray circles pulls up all sorts of information about the site including: the site name and location, acreage, the current environmental status of the site, information about the renewable energy potential of the site, and links to additional details such as incentive sheets that describe the availability of federal and/or state monies for renewable energy generation and contaminated land redevelopment.

The color-coded dots identify the EPA program that manages the site. For instance: a yellow circle represents sites managed under the Abandoned Mine Lands program; purple is used for brownfield sites; red is used to label sites managed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; pink and gray signify federal and nonfederal Superfund sites respectively.

One of these gray dots is the Rose Township Dump in Oakland County, Michigan. The site is about 40 miles northwest of Detroit and one mile west of the town of Rose Center. It spans about 100 acres and consists of undeveloped rural land surrounded by wetlands, lakes and hardwood forest. The site originally served as farmland but in the 1960s it was abandoned and illegal dumping ensued. Over the next decade, an estimated 5,000 drums of liquid industrial waste were buried or deposited on the surface of the site. It is suspected that some of the waste, which included solvents, paints and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are organic compounds used in transformers, coolants, pesticides and sealants, was dumped directly onto the ground or into pits so the drums could be recycled. The waste leached through the surface soils to ultimately contaminate the subsurface soils and groundwater.

The cleanup process started in 1980 with the removal of more than 5,000 drums. In 1982, the site was placed on the National Priorities List, and over the next several years, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA initiated cleanup actions. Today, much of the contamination has been reduced to nondetectable levels, although groundwater continues to be monitored.

This site is one of thousands that the EPA has identified as a potential biopower or biorefinery site. As it happens, over the past three years, researchers from Michigan State University have been proving the concept. With funding and acreage provided by Chrysler LLC, Kurt Thelen, associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at MSU has been growing bioenergy crops on the Rose Township Dump site.

"Our main objective was to prove that you can logistically and economically go into these marginal lands close to urban areas and raise crops in a sustainable manner," Thelen explains. To that end, Thelen's group has been studying five different crops-corn for ethanol; canola, sunflower, and soybeans for biodiesel; and switchgrass for cellulosic ethanol.

Although all brownfield, Superfund, or other contaminated sites will be different depending on weather, soil and the type of contamination, at this site, the MSU scientists have found that the crop yields are comparable with those achieved on nonmarginal lands. The researchers found no significant difference in the ethanol yield or total oil content of the oilseeds. Although a small difference in the fatty acid profiles of the oilseeds grown at this site versus those grown on typical farmland were found, Thelen explains that the difference was so slight it would not alter the quality of the fuel. In addition, on one plot with slightly elevated levels of PCBs and heavy metals, the team did not detect the contaminants in the grain harvested from the crops planted in these soils.

"We're encouraged by the data we've generated," Thelen says. "I think this research will help the argument that these lands can be put to some productive use. There are more sites out there than people think."

Jessica Ebert is a freelance writer for Biomass Magazine. Reach her at [email protected].