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Where to Put that Solar Energy Plant? EPA's Upgraded Map Will Help

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Places for utility-scale photovoltaic solar in Southern California, according to EPA | Image: Google Earth screenshot of EPA RE-Powering America's Land database

One of the most promising tools the federal government has ever created for finding good spots for renewable energy development just got an upgrade. The Environmental Protection Agency's RE-Powering America's Land initiative, begun in 2008, announced today that it has nearly triples its inventory of abused land that could be suitable for renewable energy development. The tool offers a way to move the U.S. off fossil fuel energy without the environmental loss that goes along with putting renewable energy facilities on intact habitat.

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The tool, publicly available as a series of downloadable layers for the free mapping tool Google Earth, now includes 66,000 heavily damaged sites suitable for solar, wind, biomass, or geothermal development. Sites included in the mapping tool include contaminated "brownfields," landfills, old mines, and other sites where the wildlife habitat value is potentially far less than the intact wildlands and agricultural lands that have made up the bulk of utility-scale renewable development in California.

Just as an example, the updated tool now includes more than 10,000 sites capable of becoming home to large solar panel arrays of 300 megawatts or more in size. That works out to three terawatts of power generating capacity, three times the U.S.'s total electrical generating capacity in 2011.

Though the tool has been significantly upgraded this week, it's been available in its more limited iteration for the last few years, which caused some activists to question why the Interior Department didn't take the EPA's database into account when drafting its plan for solar development on public lands.

"We see responsible renewable energy development on contaminated lands and landfills as a win-win-win for the nation, local communities, and the environment," said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response in a press release Monday. "In President Obama's Climate Action Plan, the administration set a goal to double renewable electricity generation by 2020. By identifying the renewable energy potential of contaminated sites across the country, these screening results are a good step toward meeting national renewable energy goals in order to address climate change, while also cleaning up and revitalizing contaminated lands in our communities."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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