Transforming Brownfields to Brightfields (B2B)

ELPC is working throughout the Midwest to transform underutilized urban industrial “brownfield” sites into solar energy “Brightfields” that generate clean energy, create jobs and spur green economic growth. This is part of ELPC’s vision for the Midwest’s clean energy future and can be replicated across the nation.



What’s a Brownfield?

There are many ways to define a brownfield. Generally speaking, a ‘brownfield’ site is a piece of land whose potential for redevelopment is complicated by the presence or potential presence of hazardous contaminants. Brownfields can be anywhere, but the vast majority are abandoned or underused industrial or commercial land. Brownfields can vary greatly in size and current condition and are regulated by various state and federal agencies. These agencies define brownfields differently, but some common groups of brownfields include:

  1. Sites regulated by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA). These are abandoned sites, usually with serious chemical or petroleum contamination, that are actively prioritized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup through federal and state Superfund grants.
  2. Sites regulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). These are sites with known owners/operators where redevelopment or reuse potential has been slowed by concerns over actual or potential contamination. Some landfills are also regulated under RCRA.
  3. Sites regulated by State Brownfields programs. Many states have remediation programs for sites that don’t qualify for federal clean-up and remediation help under CERCLA or RCRA. These are real properties that face complications in their revitalization because of potential or actual contamination.

Brownfields comes in many shapes and sizes and may sit idle for many years even after clean-up. Solar on brownfields can bring these pieces of land back into productive use.


What’s a Brightfield?

“Brightfields” are fields of solar panels that turn sunlight into electricity that can power our homes and businesses.  Brightfields can be installed on many different types of land, including brownfields. When installed on brownfields, the equipment can be anchored by penetrating the ground; or, if the land is too contaminated to risk penetration, the system can be ballasted to sit on top of the ground. These systems can be installed to provide electricity to the local power grid or, in rare cases, directly to an end user like a factory.


How Can Brown Become Bright?


Remediating brownfields for commercial or residential purposes may never be possible and can require significant resources, but many brownfield sites have great potential for becoming ‘Brightfield’ sites. Because brownfield sites are generally industrial or commercial sites, they often have both unobstructed sunlight and easy, low-cost access to the electrical grid. They are also the right size to house small, utility-scale solar projects that are large enough to make economic sense and small enough to fit onto the grid.

There are several things that need to be considered before a brownfield can become a Brightfield:

Usable Space: Is the site clear of buildings and debris, and is it large enough to house a meaningfully sized solar project? Solar is installed easiest on fully remediated sites, but redevelopment can happen before or during remediation as well. Depending on the site, solar can be used as an interim solution before clean-up, thereby bring the property into useful production while clean-up is planned. It can also be used on parts of brownfields while other parts are being remediated. Regardless of the state of clean-up, the brownfield needs to be at least 4-5 acres to hold at least 1 MW of solar and should be clear of buildings and debris.

Redevelopment: Is the site already planned for some other higher and better use? Brightfields should generally be placed on sites that have no redevelopment plans and in places where energy production is allowable under zoning regulations. If a brownfield is remediated and clear of other buildings and debris, it might be suitable for reuse in a commercial or residential manner and therefore may not be the best site for Brightfield development. Solar is temporary, however, and can be used as an interim solution for areas still waiting for other types of economic redevelopment. Solar panels are warrantied for 25 years, but can be moved if necessary.

Shading: Is the site shaded by trees or large buildings? This is probably the most intuitive factor when it comes to Brightfield redevelopment. Brightfields need access to direct sunlight for as many hours of the day as possible. The sun is always south of the Midwest, so panels are generally placed facing the south, though some are tracked east to west as well to follow the sun throughout the day. If a site does not have full access to the sun, it is not economically advantageous to put solar on the site.

Grid Access: Is the site located near a potential industrial or commercial energy user, or is does it have easy access to the grid in order to interconnect? Our electricity is delivered through a local and regional electricity grid. Every project, whether rooftop solar or large centralized power plants, needs to interconnect to that grid. Even a Brightfield where the power is used by an industrial company will need to interconnect to the grid so that any excess power can be sent out for others to use. Interconnecting to the grid can be an expensive and time-consuming process if the area is already saturated with other energy-producing facilities or if the grid needs upgrades to accommodate the Brightfield. Therefore a site that is close to existing grid infrastructure is critical to keeping costs associated with development down.

Local Buy-In: Does the community believe that the site is a good spot for Brightfield redevelopment? Power production facilities have a bad history of moving into disadvantaged communities without getting community buy-in. All communities, whether disadvantaged or not, have ideas on how their communities should develop and have a right to participate in the planning of their communities. Brownfields are in all types of locations, in all sorts of communities. Successful projects will have the full support of the community.


Why is B2B Important?

B2B projects can provide a win-win-win model for growing the green economy: good for job creation, good for economic growth and good for the environment. Brownfields to Brightfields (B2B) projects can bring  significant value to otherwise low-value land. They are especially attractive in urban areas with air quality concerns. Solar energy systems can also offset emissions from other energy sources, particularly during peak hours when utilities often rely on older systems that pollute more heavily. B2B sites also provide an opportunity for blighted urban neighborhoods to attract high-tech jobs and environmentally conscious businesses that are interested in supporting green investments or locating in environmentally friendly industrial parks. What’s more, solar energy can be a force of change in the electricity sector akin to the impact of wireless technologies in the telecommunications sector.


What is ELPC Doing?

First, ELPC has worked over the last few years to identify and assess large, vacant industrial sites that appear to have potential for Brightfield development in Illinois and other states. Our initial level of criteria included sites that are:

  • Among the dirtiest sites that communities want to prioritize, which are generally regulated under the federal CERCLA and RCRA programs, as well as state remediation programs;
  • Large enough to fit at least 1 MW of solar;
  • Located where there is no visible shading from buildings or trees;
  • Not currently undergoing redevelopment plans;
  • Close to existing transmission lines; and
  • Near roads and and load centers that can use the power.

Not all of these sites will ultimately be suitable for solar, whether because of the level of contamination or potential redevelopment plans already in the works — nonetheless, the opportunity is clearly huge.

We’ve finished our assessment of Illinois sites, which includes CERCLA sites, RCRA sites, Illinois State Remediation Program sites and landfills. Our list of potential sites is an amazing resource that we are making available to the public.  

Using this resource as an important starting point, ELPC is now working with decision-makers to convene meetings with solar developers, PV panel manufacturers, brownfields real estate developers, site owners, financiers, state agency officials and community members. During our small group meetings, ELPC is helping these stakeholders identify and work through barriers to project development. Some opportunities and challenges include, but aren’t limited to:

  • State Standards. One key is creating a stable and predictable market for these solar projects to sell their Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs), which can be bought by utilities to comply with annual renewable energy requirements. The Illinois Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires that Illinois procure 25% of its electricity from renewable resources, like solar and wind, by the year 2025. Due to ELPC’s leadership, the RPS includes a “solar carve-out” requiring a portion of that renewable energy (6%) to be solar power.  During 2015, ELPC is continuing to advance upgrades to the RPS including a “B2B carve-out” that would help drive solar development on brownfield sites. We are working in other states to assess the possibility of prioritizing B2B sites to meet state renewable energy standards.
  • Project Financing. New solar developers need to prove to financiers that they will have revenue to pay back up-front costs. That proof usually comes in the form of a long-term purchase agreement or a predictable revenue stream for the project’s SRECs. We can begin to address this challenge by helping create a stable market for renewable energy credits (see above). But we can also work with state and city officials to develop new financing opportunities, such as TIF districts, infrastructure banks, rate buy-downs or direct lending at reduced rates.
  • City Ordinances and Policies. Removing or reducing city-imposed landscaping, fencing and storm water requirements, as well as streamlining City zoning policies for B2B projects, would greatly reduce project costs.
  • Transmission Standards. ELPC is working with the transmission and distribution utilities to reduce the time and cost for interconnection of larger B2B developments into the grid. Smaller systems already have a fairly streamlined and cost-effective process due to ELPC’s previous advocacy efforts.
  • Community Buy-In. Identifying ways for municipalities to facilitate community buy-in for potential projects is helpful to ensuring that the community realizes the potential jobs and economic development benefits. Community members are also often helpful in continuing to refine the list of potential project sites.

Where Are the Brownfields Near Me?

There are 610 Illinois brownfield sites (including landfills) that we have identified as ‘moderate’  to  ‘excellent’ for Brightfield redevelopment based on their size, contents and surroundings. Taken together, these sites represent the potential to generate over 5,000 MW of clean power through solar arrays covering almost 24,000 acres of contaminated land. However, because of delays in updating information and new development activity occurring after the most recent data collection, not all of these sites may prove to be desirable for Brightfield development.

We have divided the counties of Illinois into five separate brownfield regions: Chicago region; Rockford and the Northwest; Western Illinois; Eastern Illinois; and Southern Illinois. A Google Map is below, and you may download a free database about these sites.


Don’t know what these mean? Check out our definitions above.

ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality

Support ELPC’s Next 25 Years of Successful Advocacy

Donate Now