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RE-Powering America’s Land

Frequently Asked Questions on Renewable Energy on Contaminated Land and Mine Sites


What is Renewable Energy?

Renewable energy is energy obtained from sources that can be continually replenished, such as solar, wind, and biomass. Unlike fossil fuels, which will eventually be depleted, renewable energy technologies provide a lasting source of energy. Use of renewable energy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, decrease dependence on foreign oil, and provide domestic economic development opportunities. Renewable energy technologies discussed on the RE-Powering America’s Land website include wind, solar (photovoltaic and concentrating solar power), biomass (biorefinery and biopower), geothermal (flash power plant, binary power plant and geothermal heat pump), and landfill gas energy. Other renewable energy sources include hydropower, tidal power, geothermal direct use and biomass direct-combustion and other biomass to energy conversion technologies. You can read more about renewable energy on EPA’s Clean Energy web page.

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What are contaminated land and mine sites?

Accidents, spills, leaks, and past improper disposal and handling of hazardous materials and wastes have contaminated tens of thousands of sites across our country. In addition, the U.S. has thousands of mine sites with areas contaminated or scarred by extraction, beneficiation or processing of ores and minerals. Contaminated land and mine sites can threaten human health as well as the environment, in addition to hampering economic growth and the vitality of local communities.

In many places, government, private, and non-profit organizations are working with each other to assess, restore, and return these unproductive properties to sustainable and beneficial uses that are protective of health and the environment. EPA and other government agencies manage multiple programs to clean up and revitalize contaminated properties. EPA alone tracks nearly 490,000 contaminated land and mine sites. You can learn more about EPA’s cleanup programs on EPA’s OSWER Cleanups web page.

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What is EPA’s RE-Powering America's Land Initiative doing to support renewable energy on contaminated land and mine sites?

Hundreds of thousands of acres will be needed to meet the projected demand for renewable energy generation over the next twenty years. This demand will put significant development pressure on greenfields and agricultural land which serve as a critical carbon sink, protect watersheds and wetlands, provide habitat, and provide raw resources and food. Through the RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative, EPA is encouraging the development of renewable energy on contaminated land and mine sites that have been cleaned up and revitalized, as an alternative to developing renewable energy on previously undeveloped land.

EPA is taking a multi-pronged approach to encourage the reuse of contaminated land and mine sites for renewable energy production, by:

  • Demonstrating the potential of contaminated land and mine sites for renewable energy.

    • EPA has partnered with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to develop criteria to evaluate contaminated land and mine sites across the country for wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and landfill gas methane development potential.
    • Using this criteria, EPA has evaluated EPA tracked Brownfields, RCRA, Superfund, landfill, and abandoned mine sites for renewable energy potential.
    • EPA has evaluated more than 11,000 EPA-tracked sites and nearly 15 million acres with potential for developing solar, wind, biomass and geothermal facilities.
    • The results of this analysis are available in mapping tools, an excel spreadsheet, and a shapefile. Results are also summarized in renewable energy technology fact sheets.
  • In partnership with NREL, supporting pilot projects at assessment sites to evaluate the feasibility of developing renewable energy at EPA contaminated land and mine sites. Projects at assessment sites are being conducted to determine the best renewable energy technology for the site, the optimal location for placement of the renewable energy technology on the site, potential energy generating capacity, the return on the investment, and the economic feasibility of the renewable energy projects.

  • Identifying state and federal incentives for developing renewable energy facilities and revitalizing contaminated land that can be layered upon one another.

  • Promoting success stories where renewable energy production facilities have been sited on contaminated land and mine sites.

  • Estimating the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that could be achieved from siting renewable energy on contaminated land and mine sites.

  • Conducting outreach to highlight how EPA can support renewable energy development on contaminated land and mine sites.

In addition, since the Initiative’s launch in 2008, EPA has been seeking input from stakeholders to determine opportunities and barriers to reusing contaminated land and mine sites for renewable energy. During the fall and winter of 2009, EPA met with stakeholders from state and local government, the renewable energy sector, finance, utilities, land owners, parties responsible for cleaning up sites, community organizations and nonprofits to hear feedback on barriers to using contaminated sites for renewable energy and how to overcome those barriers. In 2010, EPA released the RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative Management Plan (PDF) (10 pp, 138K, About PDF), which describes activities EPA can take to build upon the progress that the initiative has achieved and will serve as a two-year roadmap to guide the initiative’s activities.

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What are the benefits of siting renewable energy on contaminated land and mine sites?

There are several benefits that communities and developers may realize from developing renewable energy facilities on contaminated land and mine sites:

Community Benefits

  • Contaminated sites are cleaned up and returned to productive use, reducing blight and improving environmental quality for local residents.

  • Siting renewable energy on contaminated land and mine sites can provide an economically viable reuse for sites with significant cleanup costs or low real estate development demand that would otherwise lie idle, providing additional tax revenue.

  • Redevelopment of contaminated land and mine sites reduces the development pressure on greenfields and agricultural land, protecting those valued resources and maintaining the quality of our environment.

  • In communities with a post-industrial legacy of contaminated sites and high unemployment, renewable energy development can provide job opportunities, particularly where factories, mining and other manufacturing activities have ceased operations.

Developer Benefits

  • Many contaminated land and mine sites have onsite infrastructureincluding transmission lines, substations, roads, rail, river or ocean port access, and buildingsthat can be reused or upgraded at a lower cost than building new infrastructure.

  • Some contaminated land and mine sites offer hundreds or thousands of acres owned by a single owner, simplifying the site acquisition process.

  • Some contaminated land and mine sites offer a beneficial purchase or lease price, improving the financial feasibility of a project.

  • Contaminated land and mine sites provide an opportunity to layer financial incentives related to contaminated site cleanup and reuse with those related to renewable energy development.

  • Contaminated land and mine sites may have compatible zoning or a simplified process for acquiring zoning variance/change.

  • Communities that have been negatively impacted by contaminated land and mine sites are often motivated to revitalize those sites and less likely to oppose a project for aesthetic reasons. This local support for a renewable energy project can significantly accelerate the development process.

  • EPA and most state voluntary cleanup programs offer mechanisms for limiting liability.

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Is renewable energy the best reuse for contaminated land or a mine site?

Not necessarily. Local communities determine reuse options for contaminated land and mining sites. Individual site characteristics including the extent and level of contamination, site location, community preferences, and the local real estate market will combine to identify the "best" reuse for contaminated land or a mine site. Site-specific analysis is required to determine whether renewable energy development is an appropriate use for contaminated land or a mine site. While renewable energy development is one reuse option, other reusessuch as residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, open space, green space, and natural habitatshould also be considered.

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Does resource availability dictate where a renewable energy facility can be sited?

The availability of renewable resources is an important factor, but not the only one to consider when siting renewable energy facilities. For example, in 2008, New Jersey had twice as much grid-connected installed solar capacity as did Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. Although New Jersey has much lower solar resource availability than the southwest states, other factors, such as state policies encouraging renewable energy development, are driving solar development in the state. Other factors that affect renewable energy facility siting include slope, built or natural features on the site, technology availability and cost, electricity market drivers, land use and public perception issues, transmission availability, institutional structures, and financing.

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Does contamination limit the type of renewable energy facility that can be sited?

Some sites have contamination remaining onsite that restricts or limits the site’s use. At sites where some contamination is left in place, engineered or institutional land use controls, such as landfill caps or restrictions against digging, are used to protect people and the environment from remaining contamination. In these cases, the remaining contamination and its land use controls may limit the type of renewable energy facility that can be sited. For example, a landfill cap usually cannot support wind turbines, but could support a photovoltaic solar installation.

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What regulatory issues do I need to be aware of when developing a contaminated land or mine site for renewable energy?

There are a number of regulatory issues to consider when developing a contaminated land or mine site for renewable energy, including:

  • Site assessment and cleanup.

  • Local land use.

    • Local land use regulations guide property development. Appropriate zoning must be in place to support renewable energy development; if not, a zoning change or conditional use permit may be required. In addition, building permits are required.
    • Local permit requirements may include building, highway access, well, utility, or sign permits.
  • Environmental permitting of renewable energy projects (e.g., National Environmental Policy Act compliance, acquiring a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for managing stormwater runoff, delineating wetlands, conducting sensitive species studies).

  • Federal permitting and compliance (e.g., complying with Federal Aviation Administration requirements for wind turbines and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requirements).

  • State requirements (e.g., transmission routing permit, certificate of need, oversized and overweight load permits, natural and cultural resource reviews).

  • Local utility sector permitting and licensing of renewable energy projects.

  • Local utility interconnection requirements.

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What resources are available to help me understand the risks of liability associated with contaminated land and mine sites?

EPA is developing a liability fact sheet to provide an overview of the resources available to reduce the uncertainty about liability risks and concerns associated with siting renewable energy on contaminated land and mine sites.

This fact sheet will also provide a comprehensive list of EPA and state reference materials related to liability. A few of these reference materials include:

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What EPA funding is available to support the cleanup of contaminated sites for renewable energy development?

EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response administers competitive grants, cooperative agreements, and other assistance agreement vehicles through its programs to support the cleanup of contaminated land and mine sites. In 2010, EPA partnered with NREL to support pilot projects at assessment sites to evaluate the feasibility of developing renewable energy at EPA contaminated land and mine sites.

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How do I find a contaminated land or mine site to redevelop for renewable energy?

There is a substantial amount of contaminated land and mine sites that could potentially be used for renewable energy. EPA tracks nearly 15 million acres of contaminated land and mines sites. Experts estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of additional acres tracked by individual state cleanup programs. Preliminary analysis has shown that there are at least 3.2 million acres of abandoned mine land tracked by EPA and other sources.

You can search for EPA-tracked properties where contamination is being or has been cleaned up through EPA’s Cleanups in my Community tool. In addition, you can identify state-tracked property through state environmental agencies, or by contacting city or county brownfield coordinators. The federal Abandoned Mine Lands portal provides information on abandoned mine sites, including a Geocommunicator tool with spatial information to map those sites.

EPA has also conducted preliminary screening of 11,000 EPA-tracked sites through its Interactive Mapping Tool to identify the potential of these sites for supporting renewable energy. This tool can also be used as a starting point for identifying sites with higher renewable resource availability. However, EPA- and state-tracked sites may not necessarily be ready for reuse, or an appropriate location for renewable energy development. Site-specific analysis is required to determine whether contaminated land or a mine site is suitable for renewable energy development.

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Will my contaminated land or mine site support renewable energy development?

Renewable energy projects can range from small-scale projects where electricity is generated and used onsite, to multi-megawatt utility-scale installations that feed electricity into the national electricity transmission grid. The ability of any site to support renewable energy development depends on site-specific characteristics (e.g., resource availability, slope, built or natural features on the site, the economic context, land use and public perception issues, transmission availability, and institutional structures), and project-specific characteristics (e.g., technology availability, size and scale of the facility, and financing). Site-specific analysis must be conducted to determine the technological and financial feasibility of renewable energy development.

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I’m interested in learning more, what is the next step?

If you are interested in supporting EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative, please contact us at cleanenergy@epa.gov.

If you own a contaminated property and are interested in reusing the site for renewable energy development, you should contact your state or federal cleanup program point of contact. You can also develop an inventory of site characteristics to answer questions that will be important to renewable energy developers:

  • What infrastructure do you have available onsite? (transmission substation, transmission lines, buildings, roads, rail, and water)
  • Is your site interconnected to a utility with requirements to buy renewable energy?
  • At what price are you able to sell or lease your property?
  • Will the remediation approach limit development on portions of your property?
  • What is the onsite electricity use?

Once the contamination has been addressed and these basic questions are answered, you can hire a real estate agent or land broker to market your property to renewable energy developers. Alternatively, you could issue a request for proposals, seeking competitive bids to lease the property to renewable energy developers.

If you are a renewable energy developer, you can reach out to your federal (e.g., EPA’s Regional Brownfield Coordinators), state, and local environmental agency points of contact to identify potential sites for renewable energy development. These agencies have been assisting developers with reusing contaminated property for residential, commercial, and industrial development for many years. These agencies track the assessment and cleanup of contaminated sites and often maintain brownfields inventories, which in some states serve as a real estate development tool and identify sites that are ready for reuse. Environmental agency points of contact can also assist you with answering questions regarding liability relief. In addition, you can use EPA’s Interactive Mapping Tool to identify EPA-tracked sites that may meet your project requirements, or you can work with a local real estate agent or land broker to identify local sites that meet your specific renewable energy project requirements.

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