Brownfields to Brightfields: How BQ Energy is leading in landfill solar development

  • June 20, 2023
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  • Paul Curran, Chief Development Officer

One of the biggest debates that can arise during the development of a renewables project is where to put the projects. Ideal locations for these land-intensive projects often overlap with agricultural land, community resources, and environmentally or economically valuable land. 

Brownfield development provides a clever solution to the conundrum – build solar on land that has already been disturbed or damaged by previous human action. This is often referred to as turning brownfields into brightfields.

And there are plenty of sites to choose from. In fact, the EPA estimates that there are over 450,000 brownfield sites across America – sites that pose health and safety hazards for the communities around them, and are daily reminders of past productivity.

However, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), this left-behind legacy of the industrial revolution – closed landfills, shuttered coal plants, superfunds and brownfields – are excellent opportunities for clean energy development. 

Landfills, oil refineries, and superfund sites are increasingly popular locations for solar development in the eyes of the public and the energy industry, as well. 

This sector of renewables development is growing by leaps and bounds

Developing clean energy in the least likely places

The EPA tracks a number of landfill to solar projects across the U.S. – either completed, under construction or planned. As of the end of 2022, solar landfills have a capacity of about 2.4 GW, or enough to power an estimated 500,000 homes. 

Additionally, energy-friendly policies such as the IRA infuse our sector of renewables development with much-needed support. Specifically, the IRA’s “energy community” provisions offer substantial economic incentives (as described in this Solar Power World article).

Developing clean energy projects at these sites has clear advantages. Brownfield development helps accelerate renewable deployment and furthers environmental and land stewardship. Landfill to solar projects create benefits for nearby Low- and Moderate-Income (LMI) communities and help with environmental and social aspects of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals. 

These projects also present unique regulatory requirements and construction concerns that require specialized expertise. That’s where BQ Energy (BQE) comes in. I founded BQE in 2002. We were the first to enter this market, and the first to develop landfill solar projects in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Maryland. While the brownfield development industry is still in its infancy, BQE has grown tremendously. 

Our total pipeline includes over 300 MW of late-stage development and 700 MW of mid-stage development solar projects. The projects in late-stage development, including four sites in Ohio, represent a major milestone, as they are the largest portfolio BQE has developed to date and are some of the largest brownfield projects in the country.  Our development pipeline accounts for half of the brightfield projects announced last year.

The Sunnyside Solar project in Houston, Texas is a great example of the multifaceted benefits brownfield development can provide. Not only is it slated to be the largest urban solar project in the nation built on a landfill, but Sunnyside will also provide a myriad of community benefits. This 240-acre former landfill, which sat dormant for more than five decades, will be transformed into a solar facility that will provide enough energy for 5,000 to 10,000 homes. It also includes 2MW of community solar, which provides opportunity for residents of Houston to directly benefit from the economics of the solar. The project is also offering training and jobs to local workers during construction and operation.

Accelerating clean energy

Besides our day-to-day work, BQE is like-minded to CleanCapital in that we are dedicated to ensuring equitable access to clean energy for all communities. We regularly donate to multiple organizations that work to further access to clean energy. This includes donating solar panels to the Let’s Share the Sun Foundation – an organization which facilitates solar installations in underserved communities that lack basic resources. BQE’s latest solar panel donation is used on rooftop solar arrays that provides clean renewable energy to women’s shelters in Puerto Rico.

Following the acquisition of BQE by CleanCapital in June of 2022, the combined teams have been able to further streamline their development and financing process. The financing certainty from CleanCapital has allowed us to focus on our core competencies: developing and executing clean energy projects in these underserved communities. CleanCapital funds the development of projects in BQE’s substantial long-term pipeline, deploying capital to projects that not only advance the energy transition but also put underutilized and polluted land to new use. Thankfully, the CleanCapital and BQE teams are in the optimal position to provide important thought leadership with contributed articles and podcasts across the solar and brownfield development industries.    

During this pivotal time, brownfield development is needed more than ever. With over two decades of experience, BQE, now a wholly owned subsidiary of CleanCapital, is dedicated to finding clean energy solutions that work with communities, not against them. There has never been a better time to turn our nation’s polluted lands into brightfields — beacons for our clean energy future.