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Solar Energy Powers Cleanup of Superfund Site

• March 03, 2011 • 12:26 PM

The Frontier Fertilizer Superfund site in Davis, Calif., installs a suite of solar panels, paid for with stimulus funding, to power its own rehabilitation.

Last August, David Rosenfeld outlined on Miller-McCune.com how the tailing heaps and spoiled land leftover from mining in the American West might win a second act by serving as the home for land-hungry solar panels. (“Can Mining Provide a Renewable Energy Future?”)

As Tessera Solar’s Janette Coates explained in his story, existing transmission lines, available water and roads capable of supporting wide loads provide ready-made infrastructure, while reclaiming large tracts of land — conveniently held by a single owner — that’s already been disturbed reduces permitting costs. It also sidesteps a very real dilemma that’s particularly acute for environmentalists: Do we sacrifice pristine (if uninspiring) land for the benefit of renewable energy?

The recycled land concept spread from the Southwest and from mining areas to lands that are degraded for other reasons. (Check out this project in Appalachia at the former home of the Big Muskie.)

One of the bigger proponents of this form of recycling is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which in 2009 started addressing the bureaucratic barriers to reusing contaminated sites in what it called “RE-Powering America’s Land.”

Now the EPA has connected some ecological dots at a Superfund site in Northern California, placing solar panels at the site — and using the electricity to completely power the cleanup. According to the EPA, the half-acre of panels powering the groundwater cleanup system will cut energy costs by $15,000 a year, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 54 metric tons a year — and allow the remediation to finish by, say, 2040 instead of the initially estimated 2160.

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[/class] The home for this is the old home of Frontier Fertilizer in Davis, Calif., a university town halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento. Between 1972 and 1987, farm chemicals were stored and disposed of there, and a resultant toxic mélange eventually migrated into the local groundwater. The state stuck a straw in the ground and started removing and treating contaminated water starting in 1993; the feds joined the effort two years later. Now the plan is to boil the ground with the contaminated water (it’s called “electrical resistive heating” if you must know) and run the steam through activated carbon to filter out the toxics. Of course, running 236 heating electrodes uses a lot of juice, and that’s where the solar power comes in.

The EPA first installed solar there in 2007, but the complete package — courtesy of $2.5 million in stimulus funding — went online last week. According to the EPA’s Jared Blumenfeld, “for the first time ever, solar will provide all of the power for a Superfund groundwater cleanup.”

And there is one more dot that may be connected. All that treated water goes where? The brains behind the project at looking at irrigating property belonging to the city or along highways.

 

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Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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