In the renewable energy industry, greenfields and brownfields and referred to in relation to project construction. The difference between greenfields and brownfields highlights how the land had previously been used. Greenfield development is any kind of construction or development in previously undeveloped areas. The new development can consist of a variety of land use, including residential, commercial, industrial, and infrastructural. In contrast, brownfield development involves development on sites previously used for industrial or commercial purposes.
Differences between greenfield and brownfield development
A key difference between greenfield and brownfield development involves the previous use of the development land. Greenfield development occurs on previously undeveloped land, such as in more rural areas. A greenfield development project lacks restraints imposed by prior development on the site, including contamination and existing structures. Brownfield development utilizes previously developed land to make better use of existing sites. Often, brownfield sites are locations of former commercial operations, such as manufacturing facilities, dry-cleaning operations, or gas stations — places where chemicals were present in significant amounts over time that may have been spilled or released, resulting in impacts to soil and groundwater quality.
Important considerations for greenfield development
Greenfield development may appear to be more simple and smooth than brownfield development as it does require factoring in existing structures and contamination to site development, however, the reality of greenfield development is more complex than most understand. There are several steps before shovels can break ground on a greenfield site, with a full and comprehensive critical-issue analysis necessary before development begins. Developers should consider the permitting process, distribution lines, state and local regulations, land leases and the natural environment of the site to minimize roadblocks in the development process.
Important considerations for brownfield development
Brownfields are common throughout the United States, and the EPA estimates that there are 450,000 brownfields in the US, covering 15 million acres. This presents an opportunity to utilize this land for further development. Almost all cities and towns in the United States have brownfield sites, which represent an untapped opportunity for sustainable energy development on undervalued property close to population centers. The EPA has already pre-screened 80,000 acres of brownfields for renewable energy development.
Impacts on renewable energy development
When planning the development of a renewable energy project, multiple sites may be considered for the project location. Both greenfields and brownfields can benefit renewable energy development, with different advantages and drawbacks of each. For example, greenfield development can be crucial in emerging economies to close the infrastructure gap through development, with environmental sustainability at its core. However, one drawback of greenfield development is that the supply of greenfields for development is limited. Every greenfield development encroaches on that finite amount of land and the natural resources provided there, such as clean air and water, habitat for animal and plant species, and open space for recreation.
On the other hand, brownfield development revitalizes otherwise ignored sites and can encourage environmental stewardship, reduce costs, and utilize previously-developed land for the community benefit. For example, redeveloping a brownfield with a community-scale solar project can improve the local tax base, create energy savings, create jobs, and turn abandoned sites into an economic opportunity. Often, brownfield sites are located in close proximity to power lines and public roads, which can save on construction costs. Additionally, sewer and water systems are often still in good working order or salvageable on brownfields, which can save time and money on planning and construction. One drawback to brownfield development, however, is limited freedom due to previous development imposed on the site.
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