The Phoenix Rises: From Contaminated Land to Clean Energy

 By Tim Rehder

I’m always hoping to see an F-16 fly over when I drive by Buckley Air Force Base. No such luck today, but as we reach the top of the rise, we’re met by an even better sight: the brand-new 500 kilowatt Aurora/Arapahoe Community Solar Array. I’m here for the ribbon cutting.

Most people know that a big part of EPA’s mission is to clean up contaminated lands. What’s less well known is that EPA also works hard to get contaminated sites back into productive use. An innovative approach to this in Colorado has been the development of community solar gardens on compromised lands. 

Aurora/Arapahoe Community Solar Array, Aurora, CO

Aurora/Arapahoe Community Solar Array, Aurora, CO

 I’ve been pitching this idea for some time. The rationale is pretty simple: installing solar cells in developed areas lessens the need to construct projects on pristine lands. These projects typically generate energy close to where it will be used, reducing the need for new transmission lines. And, of course, solar energy generates electricity without the harmful air emissions associated with traditional power generation.

Community-owned solar energy is a big idea whose time has come. Colorado passed legislation in 2010 requiring that utilities establish community-owned solar projects by offering incentives. Customers purchase or lease panels and the electricity produced is credited to the customer as if the panels were on their roof. 

 Cowdery Solar Array Boulder County, CO

Cowdery Solar Array Boulder County, CO

The Aurora solar array is the second community solar project where EPA Region 8 has provided technical assistance this year. The property is located atop contaminated ground water that has migrated from the Air Force base. EPA’s RePowering America’s Lands program funded a study to evaluate placing a solar project at the location. That study caught the attention of Clean Energy Collective, a Colorado company that has pioneered the concept of community-owned solar energy. Earlier in the year, EPA helped them locate a 500 kW project adjacent to the Marshall Landfill Superfund site near Boulder, Colorado, which is another site where contaminated ground water is a concern.

Projects like the ones in Aurora and Boulder County will allow more people than ever to generate electricity, leading them to pay more attention to the energy they’re using and strive to conserve it. Furthermore, these projects are demonstrating that contaminated lands can have a second life, one with a big environmental upside.
As we leave the ribbon cutting, the construction manager tells me that an F-16 flew a couple hundred feet above the site 45 minutes before I arrived – big sigh – but I won’t complain. It’s been a great day.

About the author: Tim Rehder is a senior environmental scientist in EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver.  He works in the Brownfields program promoting renewable energy projects and green building on contaminated and formerly contaminated lands.

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