From brownfield to solar field: A case study

By John David Baldwin on January 28, 2017
Palmer Airfield is a Massachusetts brownfield that has been converted to a solar power project
Palmer Airfield is a Massachusetts brownfield that has been converted to a solar power project

Brownfields are unused pieces of land due to their contamination by hazardous substances. There are roughly half a million of these sites across the country. This contamination significantly limits the type of development that can take place in these areas. So, environmental blight leads to economic plight as the surrounding community is often forced to leave this land fallow.

Brownfields’ cheap land is a strong selling point to solar developers. This is why solar installation is seen as a way to make productive use of brownfields. What better way to repurpose a local waste area than to convert it into a site that can generate a community’s electric power through solar energy?

As attractive as this idea is, brownfields present an additional level of complexity for organizations that want to site solar there. This is due to the potential need for site clean up and for the commensurate need for approval from regulators to use this land. People who want to site solar on brownfields need to decide if this trade off, cheaper land for higher development costs, is economically worth it.

Massachusetts has been among the leaders in repurposing brownfields for solar. The Massachusetts state legislature passed the Brownfields Act in 1998. This law concerns the transformation of brownfields for any purpose, not just solar. It accomplished two things. It established the Brownfield Advisory Group (BAG) and it created financial and liability incentives to encourage transformation. Over the past decade, programs created by the Brownfields Act have supported more than 1,300 brownfield transformations in the state.

In April 2014, legislation was passed expanding the scope of the original brownfields law. It combined the state’s campaign to reclaim brownfields with the adoption of renewable energy. This new program provided specific incentives to develop solar on brownfield sites.

One such site was the former Palmer Airfield. The private airfield closed after a massive spill of airplane fuel contaminated the area. In 2000, a development company purchased the land at auction. Their goal was to construct a 42-unit residential subdivision. They did not sell any units. This made the solar re-use plan an attractive option.

In stepped Renewable Energy Massachusetts (REM), a company that specializes in the development of solar and brownfield projects. The company found the Palmer site through a search of the state’s brownfield sites provided by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. They then segmented the list, researched all of the potential sites and contacted the engineers who had been responsible for the airfield’s cleanup. One of these engineers brought their attention to a cleanup project the engineer had worked on: the Palmer Airfield.

Common steps to convert a brownfield into a solar project

  1. Determine your state’s solar incentives and how they apply to your project.
  2. Determine the land’s ownership (public or private) and the necessary clean-up procedure.
  3. Check zoning ordinances to determine whether large-scale solar is possible at the site.
  4. If the land is privately owned, negotiate the lease or purchase at a reasonable cost.
  5. Submit interconnection applications to the utility (9-12 months).
  6. Secure all project permits.
  7. Engage in the energy sales process (6-12 months).
  8. Close on financing and build the project (5-7 months).

If the land is publicly owned, the municipality can run a request for proposal process to allow third-party developers to bid on the project. Then the community can proceed through steps 1 through 8, skipping those that don’t apply.

Bringing the project to fruition required many steps.

REM, in collaboration with Syncarpha Solar LLC, negotiated a lease with the owners to allow the project to be built, and Syncarpha will serve as finance owner/operator of the solar project. It also completed the necessary permit approval processes with local and state government. Although the property had already been officially deemed “clean” by MassDEP, REM still had to submit a letter to the Department of Energy Resources in order to be approved to participate in the state’s incentive program as a “qualified brownfield” under the state’s incentive program, SREC-II.

It also worked to find an off-taker for the energy produced from the system. Three local public entities – the Town of Leicester, the Town of Spencer and Worcester State University – will collectively purchase the energy generated by the Palmer Airfield project. Over the 20-year term of the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), this will result in millions of dollars in energy savings for these three parties. In addition, the Town of Palmer will receive property tax revenue of about $2 million over the 20-year term.

The project finished construction in February of last year. A 6 MW array was built over the formerly unusable land. The project was sized this way because this was the largest size a system could be build while still qualifying for the available incentives. It is the first and largest DOER-qualified brownfield solar project under SREC-II.

REM made it clear that the project would never have happened without the SREC-II program (“not even close”). The company also emphasized that Massachusetts’ net metering policy and the ITC federal credit were also necessary.

“All Massachusetts utility-scale projects need all three incentives in order to attract equity investors to a project and for them to make a reasonable long-term project ROI,” said Robert Knowles of REM. “If you take even one incentive away, it will render the project model unviable and unattractive to investors.”

The Palmer project delivered tangible benefits to the Town of Leicester, the Town of Spencer and Worcester State University in the form of lower electricity costs, and to the Town of Palmer additional local property-tax revenue. The barriers to developing brownfields remain high, but can be overcome with the right policies in place.