Technology

Revitalizing brownfield sites

 By Andrew Burger

Now abandoned or otherwise unused, brownfield sites were once home to commercial or industrial facilities that brought jobs, steady incomes and economic vitality to communities around the world. Changing economics, technology and demographics led to many a demise, leaving a legacy of times past that includes the hazards of environmental pollution. Governments, utilities, civic and business leaders in various cities and municipalities are looking to turn things around and revitalize brownfield sites and surrounding communities by cleaning them up and building emissions-free renewable energy and energy storage facilities on them. For example ENI plans to build solar power-energy storage systems on brownfields at home in Italy and abroad…

(Cover photo by www.financematters.co)

Brownfield sites were once home to industrial or commercial facilities that brought jobs and economic vitality to communities around the world. They now sit abandoned or otherwise unoccupied and unused. Changing economics, technology and demographics have led to their demise, leaving a legacy of times past that includes the hazards of environmental pollution.

Governments, utilities, civic and business leaders in a growing number of countries, cities and municipalities are looking to revitalize brownfield sites, surrounding communities and landscapes by cleaning them up and installing emissions-free renewable energy facilities.

Perhaps most notably, Ukraine’s government is considering building a massive 4,000 megawatt (MW) solar power station on the roughly 1600 square mile (4,144 square kilometer) site of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, the April 1986 meltdown of which threatened lives, economies and ecosystems throughout Europe and beyond.

Ukraine isn’t the only country looking to take advantage of declining costs and improving performance of solar power and energy storage systems to restore brownfields and revitalize communities. Brownfields pose environmental hazards and degrade the quality of life in cities, suburban and rural areas in countries throughout the developed and developing world.

SEE MORE: Chernobyl’s future in solar by Peter Ward

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The benefits of solar brownfield development

ENI, the publisher of this online energy industry magazine, plans on building PV solar energy systems on brownfields at home in Italy and abroad. In the U.S., revitalizing brownfields by installing solar or other renewable energy facilities is a strategic goal of President Obama’s national climate change and clean energy policy platforms.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative promotes and supports renewable energy development on currently and formerly contaminated lands, landfills and mine sites. EPA program administrators identify sites and estimate their renewable energy potential. They also provide communities, developers, industry, state and local governments with a variety of resources to help with such transformation projects.

More than 100 cities in the U.S. have estimated that they they would receive anywhere from $205 million to $500 million in new tax revenues by restoring brownfields to productive economic use, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

To date, renewable energy facilities are producing clean energy from brownfield, contaminated or landfill sites in 12 U.S. states, according to the EPA. That leaves a lot of room for growth. Furthermore, brownfield sites are often well-suited for solar and other forms of renewable energy development. The U.S. environmental agency points out that many are:

  • Located near critical infrastructure including electric transmission lines and roads;
  • Located near areas with high energy demand (e.g., large population bases);
  • Constructed with large areas of minimal grade (0-2 percent) needed for optimal siting of solar photovoltaic (PV) structures;
  • Offered at lower land costs when compared to open space and able to accommodate net metered or utility scale projects.
ENI Photovoltaic project's rendering in Porto Torres (Sardinia)

Solar energy in Italy and abroad

Building PV solar or other renewable energy facilities on brownfield sites opens up opportunities to resolve the problems that brownfields pose economically, environmentally and socially. In 2015, solar PV systems generated 24.676 GWh of emissions-free electricity—7.8 percent of Italy’s electricity. That was 13 percent more than 2014’s level. That’s encouraging news for solar energy industry participants and renewable energy proponents, especially since Italy eliminated its solar feed-in tariff (FiT) scheme in 2013. That leaves net metering as the sole national government incentive supporting capacity increases.

Nonetheless, Italy continues to number among the world’s top 10 nations when it comes to installed solar power generation capacity. According to International Energy Agency (IEA), 18,622 MW of solar power capacity had been installed in Italy as of year-end 2014, putting it ahead of the U.S., a country with a much larger population and land area. ENI intends to add to Italy’s total and contribute to nationwide efforts to realize national, EU and international greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction and renewable energy goals by developing solar power projects on brownfield sites.

In May 2016, management announced ENI would invest 1 billion euros in renewable energy over the next three years. That would double the amount it invested over the past three.

SEE MORE: Inside Mitei future labs by Mattia Ferraresi

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Leveraging existing strengths as it expands renewable energy investments

“In the next three years investments in renewable projects will be around 500 million euros with a similar amount for scientific research,” CEO Claudio Descalzi said at the Eni annual shareholder meeting on May 12. ENI expects to install more than 220 MW of solar power capacity at home in Italy alone at an estimated cost of 200 million-250 million euros over the period. Prospective sites have been identified in Basilicata, Calabria, Liguria, Puglia, Sardinia and Sicily.

The company’s green energy agenda includes developing solar energy projects in Egypt and Pakistan, as well as in Italy. All told, ENI aims to bring a total of 420 MW of renewable power generation capacity online by 2022, most of it solar.

The focus is on installing solar PV systems on brownfield sites ENI owns that are adjacent to or nearby its existing oil and gas facilities and power distribution infrastructure. Capitalizing on land it owns and its existing natural gas facilities, infrastructure and expertise, ENI plans to build hybrid solar-natural gas power facilities that can reliably and economically dispatch low-emissions electricity night and day.

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Organic growth

ENI aims to generate growth organically as it expands its solar and renewable energy investments and project pipeline. That said, management favors the idea of establishing technological and/or financial partnerships with private and public sector organizations that could bring added value to these initiatives, Executive Vice President of Energy Solutions ENI Luca Cosentino explained. “We are also interested in strategic partnerships with local utilities and other governmental authorities in the countries where we operate. We are currently discussing [that] with a number of potential partners and I am sure that soon we’ll be able to sign important cooperation agreements,” Cosentino said.

ENI’s approach to renewables is consistent with its global business model, he continued. “We want to take advantage of our experience, competence, reputation and positioning in the countries in order to have a clear competitive edge from the very beginning.” “In this context, the brownfield projects that we have identified will enrich and strengthen our industrial proposition and will allow us to create a new, privileged market space, where we will be able to develop a number of significant synergies with our existing assets,” he added.

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ENI has identified and started work on a list of potential large-scale projects that it expects to be completed in a short span of time. “The objective is to take a number of fields in development this year and have our first electrons flowing in the grids by 2017, both in Italy and abroad,” Cosentino elaborated. “In the longer term, our intention is to build a material position in terms of renewable energy production in the next three to four years.”

That includes launching as many as six projects this year. “These projects are based on conventional photovoltaic (PV) modules, but we have already identified a number of projects where we will diversify our approach and deploy some of our internally developed R&D technology,” he explained.

ENI expects these projects will begin to generate returns, as well as emissions-free electrical energy, in short order. “We intend to have short execution time in order to reduce our financial exposure to the minimum. Our objective is to build a self-sustainable business before the end of the current strategic plan. In Italy, we own a large number of industrial assets, and this creates obvious synergies for new projects. We have defined an ambitious plan of asset conversion, that will be largely based on the implementation of renewable energy projects.”

Similarly, ENI also has a strong and diversified presence in Egypt, which makes identifying promising prospects more straightforward. “Other countries that we are closely scrutinizing at the moment are Algeria and Tunisia, but in fact the whole North African region has significant potential for us,” Cosentino added.

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.