“Re-Powering America's Land”: Can an EPA Initiative boost the US' lagging transition towards Sustainable Energy Production?

By Elias Treumann | March 6th, 2022

With the US still being one of the greatest emitters of greenhouse gasses on the planet, a rapid shift towards more sustainability across all sectors of public life is critical to preserve a remote chance to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. However, as of 2021, 78 percent of the nation’s total energy production still came from fossil fuels, with the allotment of renewable sources being as low as 12.5 percent. According to the Center for Sustainable Systems of the University of Michigan, decreasing the US’ dependency on fossil fuels not only helps to alleviate environmental hazards, but will become increasingly more important to ensure the country’s energy security by providing a distributed and diversified energy infrastructure”. To encourage the development of renewable energy infrastructure across the nation, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched its initiative “Re-Powering America’s Land”. But what is it and can this initiative unlock the potential of one of the richest industrialized countries in the world to assume a leading role on the way towards sustainable energy production?

The primary objective of Re-Powering is to situate renewable energy production sites on currently and formerly contaminated land, including landfills, mining sites and polluted areas. Using abandoned industrial venues and other seemingly useless sites for wind farms and solar parks has numerous advantages. Apart from the environmental benefit of clean energy, Re-Powering can encourage the revitalization of unused land to protect open space and to take advantage of already existing infrastructure such as transmission lines, substations, roads, water and rail

A great example for the enormous potential of Re-Powering is the suitability of former landfills for the large-scale construction of photovoltaic infrastructure. Between 1988 and 2009, the number of landfills in the US has decreased from roughly 8000 to 2000 across the nation, leaving huge amounts of unused space often well suited for solar power production. Landfills are often located near large population centers with high energy demands on relatively flat surfaces, providing near ideal circumstances for photovoltaic facilities. 

In addition, sites like these have the potential to significantly lower the cost of developing these kinds of projects, both in the acquisition of the land and the development of the energy source in itself. For example, due to many existing industrial sites having good access to transmission lines already in place, the cost of line construction could be reduced by anything between 250,000 and 3 million dollars per mile, according to the EPA.

Advancing the Re-Powering initiative on a large scale across the US will prove to be essential in the upcoming decades, with climate change already posing a significant threat to critical infrastructure in the energy sector across the country. A decentralized grid of renewable energy resources will be critical to ensure the reliability of power supply to communities, especially in the ever-increasing likelihood of extreme weather events and natural disasters. The vulnerability of the current power grid in the US was brutally laid bare during the Texas power failures in February 2021 with as many as 4.5 million Texans being out of power due to the extreme cold at the height of the crisis, causing a total of 246 confirmed casualties as direct result of the outages. Re-Powering could potentially provide a relatively cost-effective alternative pathway to modernize a Texas power grid still heavily dependent on coal and particularly natural gas. 

The critical transition of the US’ power supply away from fossil fuels and towards more sustainability and reliability faces significant structural and economic challenges. Although naturally not the single solution to a vast problem, the EPA’s Re-Powering initiative is a promising path to pursue and may prove to become a valuable example for similar innovative schemes to assume responsibility in the urgent re-defining phase of the US energy sector throughout the next decades.