From Brownfield to Solar Farm in East St. Louis

Coal has long powered this region, with benefits including cheap energy and costs including soot, local air pollution, contributions to global climate change and cardiovascular and respiratory disease. In Chicago, communities near the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants (which will close by the end of 2014) have suffered from the effects of burning coal. Down in East St. Louis, coal has also been dominant, but a move is afoot to transform an old Alcoa site into one of the Midwest’s largest solar projects.

The developer, Brightfields Development LLC, has spent about two years studying how to convert the long-abandoned brownfield, now owned by the city of East St. Louis, into a 20-megawatt solar farm, enough to power about 4,000 homes.

The transformation of the 220-acre site, overgrown with trees and other vegetation and polluted with reddish bauxite residue known as “red mud,” won’t be easy, or cheap.

The first phase of the environmental remediation alone is estimated to cost $24 million and take eight months. The solar project would cost an additional $65 million and require special legislation to enable the developer to sell the power to Ameren Illinois at prices current market prices.

Utility power contracts normally last a few years, but Brightfields needs a 20-year supply contract in order to finance the solar farm, said John Hanselman, managing principal of the Wellesley, Mass.-based firm.

“We need a long-term contract to make the project work,” he said.

The issues relating to this project are examined in several Roosevelt University seminars, including SUST 210 The Sustainable Future, SUST 240 Waste, and SUST 310 Energy and Climate Change. For more information on these or any other of our courses, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email applyRU@roosevelt.edu.

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