New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia increasingly view their contaminated inner-city brownfield sites as natural locations for large-scale solar installations. At the national Brownfields conference, each city explained how solar farms can be set up in the unlikeliest places, saving the money involved in cleaning up some of the worst sites.

Chicago Launches Largest Urban Solar Installation in U.S. 

In Chicago, 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. Actually, massive is an understatement for this project: it’s the largest urban solar plant in the U.S. Its 32,000 photo voltaic (PV) panels provide 10 MW of energy, enough for 1,500 local homes. In addition, GPS tracking systems help tilt the panels, ensuring the most efficient use of solar energy.

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 $2o 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.

Through the process, the local community was consulted. Some residents had concerns about living so close to the new power facilities. Graham said one plus is that the facility is totally quiet.

In the construction process, some 200 jobs were created, using “all local labor.” Additional jobs may be created if Exelon moves into the abandoned lead-ridden site next door.

Philadelphia Takes Advantage of Solar America Grants

Philadelphia won a Solar America Cities grant, which they will use to help create renewable power purchasing agreements. Kristin Sullivan, Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for Sustainability, said a number of city-owned sites are already being prepped for solar. In an example of multi-use infrastructure, Philadelphia Water Department’s treatment facilities will also host panels, generating 250 KW of power.   

In addition, the city will soon be issuing a request for proposals for a new 3 MW facility. Sullivan 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. Philadelphia also hopes to encourage large-scale distributed power via residential rooftops.

New York City Incentivizes Reuse of Brownfields

New York City launched SPEED, a searchable database of brownfield properties, a “real estate search engine”, that has gotten great traffic from the local developer community. Dan Walsh, Mayor’s Office of Operations, New York City government, said SPEED includes historical maps so developers can “toggle through time” and explore some 3,150 vacant commercial and industrial brownfield sites spread throughout the city. The idea is to use some of these sites for solar power plants.

To make it even easier for developers, the city launched a $9 million brownfield reinvestment fund. Each developer of a brownfield site gets $60-140,000 “fast” if they commit to cleaning-up a brownfield or redeveloping for energy uses. The grants can be used to cover expenses involved in design, investigation, clean-up, or insurance, says Walsh.

For brownfield sites that will be used by the public, the city has also launched a Green Property Certification program, which can be shown on site as proof that the area is fit for its intended use. “This is a voluntary, not regulatory program.”

Interestingly, none of these urban policymakers discussed how to turn parts of these new solar facilities into public spaces. Solar facilities need not be cut-off from neighboring communities. If designed well, they can also offer green space or even wildlife habitat. As an example, see Walter Hood’s model solar campus project at the University of Buffalo, which will be both public art installation and 1.1 MW solar power facility.

Image credit: Chicago City Solar / Northwestern University