From brownfields to brightfields: A land-filled with renewables opportunity


One of the biggest debates that can arise during the development of a renewables project is where to put the projects. Ideal locations for these land-intensive projects often overlap with agricultural land, community resources, and environmentally or economically valuable land.  

Siting renewables projects on land that is no longer useful – aka  brownfield development  – provides a clever solution to the conundrum. Building solar on land that has already been disturbed or damaged by previous human action is often referred to as turning brownfields to brightfields. 

Landfills, oil refineries, and superfund sites are increasingly popular locations for solar development in the eyes of the public and the energy industry. These sites are often closed to traditional redevelopment, which limits opposition and competition for the land. And there are plenty of them. In fact, the EPA estimates that there are over 450,000 brownfield sites across America – sites that pose health and safety hazards for the communities around them, and are daily reminders of past productivity.  

However, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), this left-behind legacy of the industrial revolution – closed landfills, shuttered coal plants, superfunds and brownfields – are excellent opportunities for clean energy development.  

Brownfield development helps accelerate renewable deployment and furthers environmental and land stewardship. It also creates benefits for nearby Low- and Moderate-Income (LMI) communities, helping with environmental and social aspects of Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) goals.

Several years ago, the EPA, with BQ Energy’s assistance, created RE-Powering America’s Land, an initiative that encourages renewable energy development on contaminated lands, landfills, and mine sites when such development is aligned with the community’s vision for the site.  

Thanks to the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, this sector of renewables development is poised for even more growth.  Specifically, the IRA’s “energy community” provisions offer substantial economic incentives for landfill-to-solar development. According to the IRA, “energy communities” are defined to include: 

  • Brownfield sites. 
  • Communities that at any time after 2009 had employment or tax revenues in excess of certain thresholds that are attributable to the extraction, processing, transport or storage of coal, oil or natural gas industries; and  
  • Communities located in census tracts in which (or census tracts adjoining census tracts in which) a coal mine has been closed after 1999 or a coal-fired electric generating unit has been retired. 

Projects located in these “energy communities” will qualify for a 10% increase to the base and bonus credits. The tax credit adder of 10%, over and above the 30% investment tax credit, brings the total potential tax credit to 40%. 

With policy now supporting brownfield development, we are seeing a substantial uptick in this sector. The EPA tracks a number of landfill to solar projects across the U.S. – either completed, under construction or planned. As of the end of 2022, solar landfills have a capacity of about 2.4 GW, or enough to power an estimated 500,000 homes. 

Today, following the acquisition of BQ Energy by CleanCapital, the teams work together on brownfield to brightfield projects that not only advance the energy transition but also put underutilized and polluted land to new use with myriad climate and community-related benefits. 

The Sunnyside Solar project in Houston, Texas is a great example of the multifaceted benefits brownfield development can provide. Not only is it slated to be the largest urban solar project in the nation built on a landfill, but Sunnyside will also provide a myriad of community benefits.

This 240-acre former landfill, which sat dormant for more than five decades, will be transformed into a solar facility that will provide enough energy for 5,000 to 10,000 homes. It also includes 2MW of community solar, which provides opportunity for residents of Houston to directly benefit from the economics of the solar. The project will also provide training and jobs to local workers during construction and operation.

During this pivotal time in the renewable energy industry, projects like Sunnyside Solar are needed more than ever. Repurposing brownfield/landfills to clean solar energy is crucial to reaching our nation’s clean energy goals, fighting the climate crisis, and improving the quality of life for the LMI communities surrounding these sites. There has never been a better time to turn our nations polluted lands into brightfields — beacons for our clean energy future.

About the Authors:

Jon Powers is President and Co-Founder of CleanCapital, a renewables investor focused on the middle-market solar and storage industry. Mission-driven to mitigate the climate crisis, CleanCapital leads the energy transition with strategic investments in early-stage renewables projects, developers and emerging markets. To date, the company has invested nearly $1 billion in projects and companies across 26 states and one U.S. territory, with a portfolio totaling more than 400 MW.

Paul Curran is CEO of BQ Energy (BQE), a wholly owned subsidiary of CleanCapital. BQE was founded in 2002 and is the recognized leader in landfill and brownfield development. The company was the first to enter the market, and the first to develop landfill solar projects in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Maryland.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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