The 220-acre old Alcoa site in East Saint Louis, Illinois, will be transformed into one of the Midwest’s largest solar power projects.
The developer, Brightfields Development LLC, specializes in installing solar arrays on brownfields. The company has spent about two years studying how to convert the long-abandoned, contaminated site, now owned by the city of East St. Louis, into a 20-megawatt solar farm, producing enough energy to power about 4,000 homes. “Such properties often make sense for solar projects because of the availability of large swaths of unwanted land, located near centers of population and energy demand,” said John Hanselman, managing principal of Brightfields Development.
In the 1900s, Pittsburgh Reduction Co. built a plant to convert raw bauxite into alumina (the main ingredient in aluminum) on the site. After the plant ceased operations in the late 1950’s, the property changed hands several times before it was acquired by the city.
As a result of plant operations, the site is now heavily polluted with reddish bauxite residue know as “red mud.” The soft bauxite residue deters most developers because it is not a strong enough foundation to support large-scale structures without extensive engineering.
The city has sought to redevelop the brownfield for years but none of the proposed ideas have succeeded. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will release a draft plan for the remediation works. A public meeting will follow on Tuesday in East St. Louis to discuss the plan.
“The whole idea here is to cover the waste, because obviously there’s risk associated with exposure,” said Dion Novak, the Chicago-based project manager for the EPA.
Due to the extreme pollution of the site, the first phase of environmental remediation is expected to cost $24 million. Building a solar array atop the site in the future would cost an additional $65 million.
Constructing a solar project at the former Alcoa site would create numerous benefits including a source of clean energy, hundreds of jobs, and the reuse of dormant land.
In order to build the proposed solar project, a bill, enabling Brightfields to enter into a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Ameren Illinois at a price starting at 23 cents per kilowatt-hour, must be passed. The bill was passed 33-22 by the Illinois Senate last month and is now currently pending in the House.
The cleanup of the site is being overseen by the EPA under the federal Superfund program.
“The idea that a use has been found for this site and it puts clean energy into the grid is a net benefit,” said Henry Henderson, head of the Midwest office of the Natural Resources Defense Council.