Vol. 2, Issue 02
The best places for renewable energy power plants may be the pits of the world.
o you’re a utility, and you need to site that new solar or wind power plant in the race to keep up with your multi-state territory’s various renewable portfolio standards. You want to do it incrementally, and you really don’t want to mess with federal land if you can help it.
Going with the greenfield option, however, isn’t exactly the greenest thing you could do.
So what if, instead, you messed with the remnants of yesteryear’s plunder?
Interest in redeveloping former mining lands — usually tailings dams
and waste rock dumps — for solar and wind farms is still young but vigorous. After all, there are approximately 1,000 active metal mines in the U.S., and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are tens of thousands of inactive abandoned impoundments, often grouped together in cells, capped, and groomed flat as a pancake over dozens if not hundreds of acres.
The EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced in February a feasibility study of 12 sites in the U.S. where renewable energy production (wind, solar or small hydro) might take place on Superfund, brownfields, and former landfill or mining sites. It’s part of a larger program called RE-Powering America’s Land
. Among the locations under study are the Doepke-Holliday Superfund site in
Blair Loftis, Vice President and National Director of Alternative and Renewable Energy, Kleinfelder
Shawnee, Kan.; the Leviathan Mine Superfund sit in Alpine County, Calif.; Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island; and some 800 acres of vacant industrial tracts formerly occupied by the chemical industry in Nitro, W.Va.
Equally interested are mining companies such as Grupo Mexico mining subsidiary Asarco, and geotechnical and engineering service providers such as California-based Kleinfelder. The two firms took part in a Western Business Roundtable Webinar on the topic on May 12.
“Smart project siting is the first step towards competitive power costs,” said Blair Loftis, Kleinfelder vice president and national director of the firm’s alternative and renewable energy practice. “The more clever you are in terms of siting, the better you will be able to manage power costs.”
For greenfield siting, it takes more than cleverness, it takes time and perseverance, as the developer hacks through a jungle of permitting processes that could include multiple federal agencies and their state counterparts in historic preservation, fish and game, transportation and land. Loftis cited a prospective solar site that was peppered with small washes and hundreds of saguaros, ironwood trees and other protected plant species. With required salvage and mitigation measures, “all of a sudden we’re looking at an additional unanticipated cost of over $2 million.”
For some large-scale projects, estimated mitigation costs all by themselves threaten to drive redevelopment proposals into extinction.
Sites involving land under the aegis of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages approximately one-eighth of the nation’s land mass, can take up to two years or more and several million dollars’ expense to go through all the proper steps. “So often developers are taking drastic steps to try and avoid using BLM land,” said Loftis. That said, the BLM itself is closely examining redevelopment potential, via its Restoration Design Energy Project
, funded, fittingly enough, by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The project, currently in the public
Some mine waste sites out West, in a reversal of Appalachia’s much-maligned “mountaintop removal” coal-mining process, instead become literal mountains themselves, with terracing, wide roads and flat tops open to high winds that just might be suitable for a wind turbine or 20.
image courtesy of Kleinfelder
scoping stage, has identified dozens of sites in Arizona alone.
Mining sites can boost the clever quotient quite a bit for renewable energy developers, Loftis explained, because they minimize multiple uncertainties: land control and availability; private ownership (i.e. no BLM), appropriate terrain, existing infrastructure; and proximity to power transmission assets. Generally mining operations are huge consumers of power, so there is some proximal demand immediately, and that mining firm will also already have a “host” relationship with the utility, which could be an off-taker. The only questions needing resolution are proximity to power load and available transmission capacity.
Many possible sites for redevelopment are strewn across the copper belt in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and hence ripe for solar, whether of the photovoltaic panel variety (which needs approximately 8 acres per MW of power production), concentrated solar trough (10 acres per MW) or Stirling dish (five acres per MW). In the case of tailings dams and rock dumps, there is enough land availability that a solar developer can plan a project incrementally, to scale up over time. One active mining site Kleinfelder is working on has 6,800 acres of dam and 4,200 acres of waste rock. At five acres per megawatt for Stirling solar dishes such as those promulgated by Tessera Solar (which acquired Stirling Energy Systems in 2008), “you’re looking at over one gigawatt of area that can be developed as a renewable asset,” said Loftis.
The demand from the mining company is not a factor to be overlooked, noted Loftis, citing one mine in Nevada that has its own coal-fired power plant and is required to comply with the state’s renewable portfolio standard. “Some mining entities are considering an inside-the-fence generation source in areas outside the United States such as South America,” he said, “where they rely very heavily on diesel generation. So to construct a renewable asset there would be an effective power hedge.”
Krishna Parameswaran, director of environmental services & compliance assurance for Asarco LLC, said among the advantages of renewable redevelopment to the mining company is the fact that the developer would bear the costs of development, construction, operations and maintenance, and a lease agreement for the land would be a source of revenue. “The land is otherwise idle,” he said, “and redevelopment may help defray the cost of maintenance of the cap on reclaimed lands.”
This map depicts the waste site redevelopment possibilities within just one renewable energy sub-sector.
image courtesy of EPA
Such projects might also contribute a softer tone to the usual relationship between a mining firm and the EPA. As Parameswaran sees it, “The EPA has indicated that if a renewable project were to be
There is precedent for mine site redevelopment by renewable energy projects, including several wind farms in Pennsylvania. Pictured here is the Green Mountain Wind Farm near Garrett, Pa., which sits on land previously strip-mined for coal that has been reclaimed and is now farmed. The eight-turbine facility has been in operation for a decade. Out West, Pacific Power has more recently sited a phased wind farm on a portion of a reclaimed surface coal mine site near Glenrock, Wyo.
photo courtesy of NREL and Green Mountain Energy Co.
sited on disturbed lands, they would work closely with regulatory agencies having jurisdiction with respect to required mitigation, reclamation and permitting.”
That is a sore topic for Asarco. As a statement on the Grupo Mexico Web site puts it: “Superfund, which was originally enacted to deal with chemical sites, is poorly structured to deal with the many different issues that arise in the mining industry. Mining booms of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often involved thousands of individuals and hundreds of companies. In some mining districts where multiple parties were often involved in the ownership chain of industrial sites, Asarco is one of the few participants left; and the burden of responsibility under the flawed Superfund falls disproportionately on the few successful survivors.”
To make renewable redevelopment successful, said Parameswaran, the next step is for Asarco to work with the prospective developers and utilities to see how suitable the sites really are. In some cases, one constraint might be more economical than geotechnical: Prices for copper have climbed, and so has technological innovation, meaning that today it may make sense to try to extract some metals from tailings deposited decades ago. Others, however, are ripe for the picking.
“It appears to me that in the reclamation phase is where it would make sense,” he said. “At our Mission Mine at San Xavier, Arizona, we have commenced reclamation on tribal lands. We have capped with native soil on three dams, which also have been seeded. As part of this reclamation we are also reclaiming waste rock dumps, also on tribal lands.”
Side By Side
Maria Baier, a former Phoenix City Council member appointed as the Arizona State Land Commissioner, in June 2009, says she has spent much if not most of her time since the appointment dealing with energy-related issues, as opposed to land. She is responsible for managing millions of acres of land across the state, much of which is leased for grazing purposes, while other parcels are sold for development or conservation. Proceeds from land sales and leases primarily benefit K-12 education.
Asked about her department’s view of mine site redevelopment for renewables and its possible compatibility with wildlife habitat and other usual redevelopment aims, she says, “As with all other matters having to do with land, no two sites are exactly the same. Some of them would only be appropriate for some kind of wildlife or habitat conservation. Some could be redeveloped
Maria Baier, Commissioner, Arizona State Land Department
into some other ‘productive’ use. And many are very appropriate for renewable energy sites. We think it’s often a very good reclamation use, depending on the site.”
In some cases with wind in particular, she says, the choice between renewable power and renewable habitat doesn’t have to be a mutually exclusive one.
“You can have wildlife corridors that run through the wind farms,” she says. It all depends on the site, the technology and the habitat under consideration.
“I know most of the interest around reclamation is in putting together wildlife habitat,” says Kleinfelder’s Loftis in an interview after the Webinar, citing such a purpose as a big priority for Resolution Mining in Arizona, for instance. But he says such companies are open to discussing the possibilities of setting aside some portion of the reclaimed land for solar or wind, or some combination of the two. That way, he says, you can have “a blended asset with wind and solar, so you’re compensating for the deficiencies of each with the attributes of the other.”
That phrase succinctly describes the mines-to-megawatts prospect. It also gets at the heart of what sustainability truly means when it fully plays out.
“If we’re going to embrace a sustainable future, we must begin to recycle our resources,” said Loftis, “and land is not exempt.”
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