Seeing the Light of Renewable Energy: The Potential of Brownfields and Green Collar Jobs in Alabama

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

In a recent national publication, Business Facilities aimed to rank cities by their potential for economic growth. Alabama did well; Birmingham ranked third among mid-sized cities, with Huntsville and Auburn-Opelika ranking second and fifth among small cities, respectively. However, regarding sustainability and social issues, we still have our work cut out for us. According to a recent study from WalletHub examining each state’s environmental quality and eco-friendly policies, Alabama ranked close to last at no. 45. Alabama’s promotion of economic development has historically come at the cost of our natural resources, but cleaning up our act and incorporating more sustainable development does not have to result in a less prosperous economy. In fact, the costs of sustainable technologies have fallen at a dizzying rate in recent years, especially in the energy sector. As the cost of sustainable alternatives continues to decline, it's creating millions of jobs, a cleaner environment, and a better future for generations to come.

Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. States across the nation are beginning to reclaim and embrace sustainable practices, while investing in new infrastructure and adopting innovative policies that are more favorable to the environment. Despite the potential Alabama has for economic growth, the state's relative lack of modern sustainable development could ultimately hinder long-term prosperity for both the economy and residents. The transition to a post-carbon economy is gaining momentum through innovation and transparency, and consumers are increasingly demanding more information regarding business practices, specifically irresponsible operations. Progress in technology has made it difficult for businesses to conceal operations that result in environmental and social damage; and the increase in social and environmental activism on social media platforms has provided consumers with avenues to hold them accountable.

Advancements in renewable energy technologies is leading to lower costs in the market, even surpassing the efficiency of coal. This has led to the development of a thriving job market in states that have committed to investing in their renewable energy sector. From solar panel installation to wind turbine sales, “green jobs” are creating stable, high-wage employment for blue-collar workers, local manufacturers, electrical workers, researchers, engineers, and many more. Research has demonstrated that investments in renewable energy infrastructure creates three times more jobs than investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. According to E2's 2019 report on clean jobs in America, 110,000 new clean energy jobs were created in 2018, bringing the total number of Americans who now work in the clean energy industry to 3.26 million, nearly double the 1.7 million Americans employed in the fossil fuel industry.

No longer is it a question of whether states should retire their coal plants- it’s simply a matter of when. In Colorado for example, under Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan, the state replaced the Comanche coal units with a $2.5 billion investment in renewable energy and battery storage. This investment accounts for 1,131 megawatts of wind, 707 megawatts of solar PV, and 275 megawatts of battery storage. Xcel projects that this transition will save energy users as much as $374 million. In Iowa, MidAmerican will be the first utility to reach 100% renewable energy by 2020 without increasing customer rates. While in Alabama, on May 29, 2019, Montgomery’s Municipal Electric Authority (AMEA) announced that they are investing $125 million into a solar farm in Montgomery County. This project is expected to supply clean energy and savings to 11 member utilities and contribute to over $5 million in property tax revenue to Montgomery County Schools. In Birmingham, Southern Research recently opened the Energy Storage Research Center, an engineering campus specifically focusing on grid-scale energy storage applications in combination with renewable energy.

Part of our mission at Trek EC is to provide products and services promoting the reuse of brownfields. Brownfields include former industrial and commercial properties, the reuse of which is complicated by the presence or potential presence of hazardous substances, petroleum, or other contaminant. That blighted former industrial site across town? That’s a brownfield. So is that abandoned corner gas station and vacant dry cleaner down the street. Although the total number of brownfields in Alabama is unknown, there are more than 450,000 in the US. There are multiple benefits to cleaning up and redeveloping brownfields, like increasing surrounding property value, additional tax revenue, creating jobs, and the elimination of exposure hazards to the community. As coal-fired power plants and associated supplier industries begin to shut down, the question arises of what to do with these brownfield properties.

Brockton, MA had the right idea. The Brockton Gas Works manufactured gas plant operated for nearly 65 years until closing in 1963. In 1989, a number of volatile organic compounds such as benzene, tolulene, and xylene were discovered in the soil and groundwater beneath the property. Cleanup was completed at the site in 2004 and included the installation of a cap over affected soils. Reuse options for the property following cleanup were restricted, and the city needed to come up with a project that was not only productive, but one that could generate enough annual revenue to pay for the prior cleanup expenses. A few years later, the idea of a solar farm or "brightfield" was born. After extensive planning and support from the public, the city began building what was said to be the largest "brightfield" in the US at the time. Now, the Brockton Brightfield generates over $145,000 in annual revenue for the city, money which goes towards the cost of expanding and maintaining the facility. Achieving an outcome like Brockton is a complex undertaking, and requires cooperation between private sector stakeholders, government, and nonprofits. But it’s possible, and our team at Trek EC stands ready to contribute.

By failing to adopt more solar, and other clean energy technologies, our sunny southeastern state is missing out on lower energy prices, increased economic growth and jobs, cleaner air and water, and a more resilient power infrastructure that favors current and future generations. Alabama not only has some of the greatest potential for solar energy due to an abundance of sunlight, but we're also one of the most biologically diverse states in the US. Adopting cleaner energy policies equates to cleaner water for fishing, swimming, and drinking; cleaner air for breathing, exercising, and healthy living; and cleaner soil for planting, building, and harvesting. With the right support and policies, investments in sustainable development could ultimately unlock immense opportunity for Alabama's economy and protect our most precious ecosystems. When we invest in sustainable development, we invest in our future. Let’s make it happen, Alabama.


Caroline Barnes is interning as an Environmental Marketing Associate at Trek EC, a new environmental firm that specializes in products and services to promote sustainable development. Click here to learn more about what we're doing at Trek EC.

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