Solar Energy and Equitable Development: Turning Brownfields to Brightfields

Guest post by Adi Nochur, Deputy Director of Capacity Building, Groundwork USA

With support from EPA’s Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization, Groundwork USA and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) are collaborating to explore Brownfields to Brightfields (B2B) as a strategy to revitalize polluted land, to promote solar energy, and to advance equitable community development.

B2B projects repurpose brownfield sites – land with known or potential hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants – with solar and other renewable energy installations on ground-mounted arrays, building rooftops, or canopy structures. There is great potential for these projects to create local benefits, especially in low-income communities and communities of color that disproportionately suffer from industrial pollution, disinvestment, and vacancy; lack access to clean energy resources; and face severe climate change impacts and risks.

Over the past year, Groundwork USA and MAPC engaged in extensive research – including 14 stakeholder interviews with municipal staff, state and federal agencies, community organizations, and renewable energy developers – to better understand the opportunities and challenges surrounding B2B projects.

These efforts informed the production of a B2B research memo and culminated on May 20 with a virtual “Brownfields to Brightfields: Unlocking Solar Energy and Equitable Community Development” workshop, attended by over 70 people. A recording of the workshop is available here. Workshop speakers and presenters shared models and real-world examples of B2B projects that advance equity and community benefits, introduced Groundwork USA and MAPC’s newly created mapping tool for identifying potential B2B sites in Massachusetts, and laid the groundwork for future B2B project partnerships.

Speakers included:

  • Stephen Burrington, Executive Director, Groundwork USA
  • Lora Strine, Team Leader, RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative, US-EPA
  • Julie Curti, Clean Energy and Climate Strategy Manager and Senior Planner, MAPC
  • Emil King, Analyst, DC Department of Energy and Environment
  • Lena Entin, Training Coordinator, Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts
  • Lori Ribiero, Vice President of Business Development, Mill Creek Renewables
  • Caitlin Spence, GIS and Planning Analyst, MAPC

Photo Credit: MassCEC

Here’s a snapshot of what we learned:

State policies are enabling opportunities for B2B projects

Lora Strine, Team Leader for EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative, emphasized the important role of state policy in enabling B2B projects, pointing to Massachusetts’ revised permitting processes and regulations to facilitate solar development on landfill and brownfield sites.

Local cities and communities are often the driving force behind the development of B2B project

Emil King, Analyst for the DC Department of Energy and Environment, spoke about how the development of the Oxon Run community solar farm not only provided an innovative use of a degraded 15-acre brownfield site, but also delivered free electricity to approximately 750 local low-income households via community solar (offsetting $500 annually per household).

Lena Entin, Training Coordinator for Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, shared the story of how Holyoke, Mass. went “From Coal to Sol.” With the support of Neighbor to Neighbor, low-income Latino residents organized to retire the Mount Tom coal-fired power plant and replace it with the largest solar installation in the state – removing the biggest environmental health threat in the city.

Lori Ribiero, Vice President of Business Development at Mill Creek Renewables, spoke of her work in the early 2000s to develop one of the first B2B projects in the country when she was with the City of Brockton. The project on a former manufactured gas plant provided power generation and continues to serve as an educational resource in the community today.

Partnerships are essential to the development of successful and equitable B2B projects

Julie Curti, MAPC Clean Energy and Climate Strategy Manager and Senior Planner, gave an overview of the research memo. The memo identifies four equitable B2B project models: equitable engagement, community shared solar, community benefits agreements, and solar-accessorized sites. Municipalities and community partners can collaborate to support B2B development efforts in many ways, she said, including leading engagement, convening stakeholders, procuring materials, and B2B site aggregation.

MAPC GIS and Planning Analyst Caitlin Spence introduced a new mapping tool for identifying potential B2B sites in Massachusetts. This online platform enables municipal officials, state agencies, renewable energy developers, and community organizations to assess brownfield sites in Massachusetts for B2B project suitability and to better understand the opportunities for community benefits from these projects. In addition to spurring B2B projects in Massachusetts, Groundwork USA and MAPC hope this tool also helps to inspire similar B2B mapping efforts in other states.

The full recording of the webinar can be found here. Groundwork USA and MAPC are currently following up with workshop participants to gauge their interest in future B2B collaboration. Feedback will help guide the creation of additional B2B resources that are relevant for B2B practitioners across the country. Groundwork USA and MAPC invite you to reach out if you’re interested in staying engaged with our B2B work or sharing your B2B ideas and needs.

B2B Resources:

Workshop Presentation Slides: