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After 17 years of cleanup, plan for solar farm at polluted East St. Louis site still uncertain

Solar field plans uncertain at polluted East St. Louis site

Plans are still up in the air for a solar field at the polluted former Alcoa plant in East St. Louis, as explained in this video from March, 2018.
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Plans are still up in the air for a solar field at the polluted former Alcoa plant in East St. Louis, as explained in this video from March, 2018.

After years of contamination from aluminum production, a 400-acre site off Illinois 15 is finally cleaned up and ready to use for a solar panel field to generate renewable energy.

But the project, four years in the works following more than a decade of cleanup, has yet to get off the ground. Financing complications have prevented the developer from moving forward, according to Mike Singer, project manager for Brightfields Development, the Massachusetts-based solar company hoping to develop the site.

The site, just a few miles west of the Interstate 255 interchange north of Illinois 15, was used by the Alcoa company until the late 1950s as a place to dispose of waste from its aluminum production plant, according to the Unites States Environmental Protection Agency.

More than 50 years' worth of waste collected there until the plant's closure, permanently contaminating the site and rendering it unfit for reuse. Such sites are called brownfields.

Efforts to clean up the the EPA Superfund site began in 2001, but it wasn't until 2014 that cleanup efforts ramped up after Brightfields Development expressed interest in building a $65 million solar field there. Brightfields specializes in turning brownfields into solar fields.

The solar field would be capable of producing 20 megawatts of energy, enough to power thousands of homes, according to estimates from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

In 2014, the EPA, Alcoa, and the Alton and Southern Railroad, which has rails running parallel to the site, renewed the cleanup effort. The site was cleared and workers laid 2 feet of new soil over roughly 100 acres where the waste was disposed, according to EPA spokeswoman Rachel Bassler.

Cleanup was completed in 2016 with a total cleanup cost of $19.5 million, according to Alcoa.

From Illinois 15, also known as Missouri Avenue, the site looks like a fenced-off, abandoned industrial area, but it is prime real estate for a solar field, said Singer, the project manager.

It's the perfect area for a solar field because practically nothing else can be built there, Singer said. The contamination is still toxic, making the site unsafe for humans to frequent.

"The reason that solar is such a good fit is because there's very little day-to-day operation and maintenance," Singer said. "These are long-term projects with minimum moving parts that's why (solar) is such a good reuse for contaminated sites."

"Why go out and cut down trees or take farmland to build solar (fields) when these sites are well-positioned to the electric grid and readily available?" Singer added.

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The former East St. Louis Alcoa aluminum plant is shown here in this undated photo. Belleville News-Democrat

Brightfields Development, which oversees projects in more than 25 states, is waiting for favorable financial circumstances before moving forward with building the solar field, Singer said.

Unlike in 2014, Illinois now has a solar policy in place, possibly paving the way for the kind of financing Brightfields is hoping for.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Future Energy Jobs Act in December 2016, bringing the promise of more financial incentives in the form of rebates for solar projects. Renewable energy credits, or RECs, became available to companies like Brightfields in return for increasing the state's renewable energy resources.

Those credits are essential to offsetting the high costs of redeveloping a brownfield, Singer said. Without the credits, the project wouldn't be financially feasible for the company.

"There are premium costs associated with this kind of project," Singer said. "The success of this project is contingent on being able to achieve a REC price that overcomes some of the increased development costs."

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This Feb. 10, 2002 BND file photo shows Joe Laiben stands at the former Alcoa site in East St. Louis. Cleanup first began in 2001 but was not completed until 2016. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

The company could apply for those credits as soon as the spring or summer when the Illinois Power Association will hold auctions for the credits, Singer said.

Companies must submit bids for the credits to the state agency that doles them out. The system encourages developers to bid aggressively and set up their solar fields at the lowest cost possible, Singer said.

After setting up shop, power sales to utilities such as Ameren Illinois will help offset the development cost. The city of East St. Louis will benefit, too, Singer said. Brightfields will lease the land from the city, which owns the site.

Power rates will not be affected by the solar field if and when it is built, Singer said.

Previous Illinois legislation, HB2607, would have required Ameren to buy power from the solar farm for 20 years. The power utility would have passed that cost along to consumers, amounting to an additional 32 cents per customer per year.

The legislation never passed and was left session sine die, or without a future hearing, in January 2017.

Nonetheless, solar energy purchased by Ameren matches the price the utility pays for energy purchased elsewhere in the open market, according to Ameren Illinois spokeswoman Marcelyn Love.

"Customers would not see an increase in energy supply costs," Love said in an email.

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This Nov. 27, 2000 file photo shows the former Alcoa plant in East St. Louis. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

If the project does finally launch, residents will likely see little change in the view from Illinois 15. The solar field would be built on the old disposal areas.

"You wouldn’t even know it’s there," Singer said.

Founded in 1888 in Pittsburgh, Alcoa continues to produce aluminum products and mine bauxite, a rock with a high aluminum content. The sitework was completed before Alcoa Corporation became a new, independent company in November 2016, according to company spokesman Jim Beck.

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