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Tina Casey headshot

NYC Finds Solar Energy Gold in Old Landfills

Landfill gas recovery is becoming a familiar fixture in the alternative energy scene, and now New York City has added a new dimension to the idea of extracting valuable resources from seemingly useless parcels of land. The city plans to build utility-scale solar installations on its old landfills, to the tune of about 50 megawatts. Admittedly, that's a drop in the bucket in terms of the city's overall electricity use.  However, the solar program is focused on achieving a clean air goal, which has its own public health value. The new solar installations will reduce emissions from petroleum-fueled generators, which the city currently has to use on hot summer days to meet peak demand. That raises an interesting point for a company with decommissioned landfills or other derelict property on its hands: aside from producing clean (and potentially cheaper) energy, what additional value could a solar installation have?

Brownfields, Green Jobs and Community Relations

Aside from helping to improve local air quality, the first thing that comes to mind is job creation. New York City's plan is actually a local version of a federal program called RE-Powering America's Land, which seeks to develop brownfields and Superfund sites for renewable energy. Many of these sites are located in or near populated areas, sucking up real estate. The program has a strong emphasis on putting that land back into economic circulation, by creating green jobs for local residents. In contrast to company-sponsored green volunteer projects, solar energy installations enable companies to create green job opportunities for local installers, electricians and other skilled trades. That's a powerful community relations tool in today's tough economy.

Communities and Nature Conservation

In urban areas, a brownfield-sited solar installation can turn a former eyesore into a source of local pride. It could also help communities preserve natural open space from development. The Nature Conservancy has pointed out that there is ample room in the U.S. for wind turbines on land that has already been developed and is inhospitable to endangered and threatened species. In other words, less natural habitat would need to be disturbed for renewable energy, if we focus attention on land that has already been disturbed. Though there isn't necessarily going to be a direct trade-off, the availability of brownfields could factor into a local planning board's decisions, and it could put a company in the position of helping to preserve open space by offering its property as a site for renewable energy.

What if You Don't Have a Brownfield?

If you extrapolate from the Nature Conservancy's theme, any suitable rooftop can be thought of as a kind of brownfield, as in a potential renewable energy site that has few if any other uses and is inhospitable to endangered species. For that matter, companies with expansive parking lots have a lot of acreage at hand that is extremely inhospitable to wildlife. Parking lots go unused for large chunks of time, so installing solar is also one way to draw more use-value out of your real estate. Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania is just one example of a business that has put its large parking lot to work as a massive solar installation, and the U.S. military has also been installing solar parking lots.

Learning from New York City

Speaking of New York, the city's new solar power initiative is just part of a sustainability campaign called PlaNYC. The campaign involves a good deal of public education and, as pointed out elsewhere in Triple Pundit, it features some well designed online elements that could help engage businesses and their employees in making sustainable choices.

Image: Landfill by gsz on flickr.com.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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