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Super solar project

Solar industry supplier and developer Hanwha Q CELLS undertook a solar power project on an EPA Superfund site in Indiana without government incentives, and the10.8-MW project is now delivering green power to Indiana Power & Light

By Tony Kryzanowski

It's estimated there are nearly half-a-million contaminated sites in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been given the responsibility of cleaning up many of these sites and has identified 14 million contaminated acres under its 'Superfund' umbrella that could be re-purposed for solar or wind power.

Superfund is the name of the fund established by the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980. This law came about after the discovery of toxic waste dumps such as Love Canal and Times Beach in the 1970s. It allows the EPA to clean up sites like this and to compel responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanups.

Hanwha Q CELLS, a solar power industry supplier and developer headquartered in Germany-with U.S. offices in California-recently re-purposed an EPA-identified site into what is said to be the nation's largest solar farm built on a Superfund site. Hanwha built, commissioned, and operates a utility-scale solar power installation on a contaminated site in Indianapolis, Indiana.

"Superfund sites scare business because they are concerned about acquiring the liability of the site. Development can be long and expensive," says Hanwha Q CELLS project manager, Geoff Underwood. "For more than 20 years, people have looked at these sites as promising opportunities because it is a good use of those pieces of land." But overcoming the commercial, legal, and regulatory hurdles can be viewed as daunting.

Using a method the company developed to minimize soil disturbance, Hanwha Q CELLS was able to work within EPA pollution control guidelines and construct a 10.86-MW solar power installation-the Maywood Solar Farm-on 43 acres of the Reilly Tar & Chemical Superfund site in Indiana. By using its construction method, Hanwha Q CELLS was able to reduce the amount of soil moved during development of the solar farm by 93 percent.

This method, which was developed in concert with the EPA, minimizes the potential risks of exposing known underground hazards, impairing the environmental remediation already done on the contaminated site, or creating human exposure to site hazards.

"The completion of the Maywood Superfund project is a significant milestone for Hanwha Q CELLS and also for the solar industry as a whole in overcoming the legal, financial, regulatory, and construction hurdles to create a virtuous cycle and develop a higher use for brownfield, idle land," said Charles Kim, Hanwha Q CELLS chief executive officer, when the project was commissioned.


Kim added that in completing a non-subsidized Superfund project, Hanwha Q CELLS, "has broken a barrier that has frustrated solar project developers for more than 20 years. We are looking forward to future similar projects."

One reason contaminated sites represent attractive targets for solar or wind developments is that many are located near existing electrical infrastructure.

In the 1920s, the Republic Creosote Company used part of the 120-acre Indianapolis property to distill coal-tar and treat wood, producing a high volume of treated railway ties. Later, in the early 1950s, Reilly Tar & Chemical Corporation began producing specialty chemicals on the property. Until 1972, it continued to use part of the site to operate a coal-tar refining and wood treatment facility involving the use of creosote.

Today, Vertellus Agriculture and Nutrition Specialties LLC, a company that was created by the merger of Reilly and Rutherford Chemicals, still operates a specialty chemical plant on the northern part of the property. The area where railway tie and lumber treatment took place was put on the EPA National Priority List in 1984, and remediation work was conducted between 1992 and 1999. At the time of its conversion to a solar farm, the remediated site was essentially being used for storage and parking.

While current site owner Vertellus looked at a number of potential uses for the remediated site, solar power production was attractive because, given the nature of a solar farm, the owner anticipated that there would be little human interaction with the site over the 30-year projected lifespan of the project.

Completion of the $20 million Maywood Solar Farm involved a number of partners, requiring good cooperation and communication-which Underwood described as outstanding-between Hanwha Q CELLS and the EPA. The EPA was very satisfied with the project outcome.

Given its experience with the Maywood Superfund site-to-solar project in Indiana, Hanwha Q CELLS is now scouting out other potential opportunities for solar farm installations on contaminated sites with the right circumstances to make a solar project economically feasible. 

"This innovative solar project demonstrates that Superfund sites can be redeveloped to generate economic benefits for the local community and clean renewable energy for homes and businesses," says Susan Hedman, U.S. EPA regional administrator. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management was also a key partner in the project.

Other partners included Indiana Power & Light, which is purchasing the power from Hanwha Q CELLS as part of its rate Renewable Energy Program (REP). Under this program, the utility pays 20 to 24 cents per kilowatt hour for solar power for 10 years. Hanwha Q CELLS has a power purchase agreement with the utility for 15 years. Except for participation in this utility program, Hanwha Q CELLS was able to complete this project without federal, state, local, or corporate incentives, which Underwood says is a significant achievement in itself. PNC Bank provided Hanwha Q CELLS with the financing to build the project.

The solar farm consists of 36,556 Q.PRO L polycrystalline modules on solar panels supplied by Hanwha Q CELLS, attached to 4,549 driven support piles. URS Corporation handled engineering and project management. Ohio-based U.S. Utility Contractor Co. was the construction contractor, and the array racking system was provided by Solar FlexRack. Construction began at the end of September 2013 and was completed in March 2014, when the solar farm began commercial operation.

Underwood says what helped advance the project is that the site was well known to EPA Region 5 Project Manager Dion Novak, who oversaw the site remediation work done in the 1990s. Hanwha Q CELLS hired environmental consultant, August Mack Environmental Inc. (also involved in the earlier site remediation work) to assist with the solar farm installation.

As a chemical, Underwood says that there is a human exposure risk from creosote, but it is hazardous over a period of time, representing a lesser hazard than many other examples of potential chemical exposure on other sites. The level of exposure danger, as well as the fact that the site had sat idle with a high level of monitoring by the EPA over two decades, made this site attractive for redevelopment. There were good historical records regarding the exposure risk and the effectiveness of the remediation work.

Working with the EPA and based on their knowledge of the Superfund Indiana site, Hanwha Q CELLS used a driven pile system and implemented a minimal soil disturbance plan. Key elements of the plan were above-ground cable trays, above-ground inverter works on concrete pads, and minimal site grading.  

"Since remediation was complete and there were very good detailed historical records of the level of contaminants, we felt comfortable with proceeding at some level with the project, but that also required direct engagement with the EPA," says Underwood.

In addition to liability, another business fear of pursuing projects on Superfund sites is concern with cost overruns because of an inability to manage regulatory requirements or EPA directives. It only took Hanwha Q CELLS about 10 months from their initial introduction to the EPA to obtain the regulatory approval to proceed with the solar farm project.

"We were ultimately able to construct the project at the same or lower overall cost of similar projects in the area that were not on Superfund sites," says Underwood.

In addition to obtaining the EPA's approval, the site presented a number of challenges related to minimizing the disturbance of the previous remediation work. The initial plan was to use concrete ballast blocks on the surface for support, which is more expensive than typical construction. Working with the EPA and based on their knowledge of the site, Hanwha Q CELLS used a driven pile system and implemented its minimal soil disturbance plan. Key elements of the plan were above-ground cable trays, above-ground inverter works on concrete pads, and minimal site grading. The above-ground tray method is a new method introduced to the U.S., although it is quite popular in Europe.

"There were zero encounters of us uncovering contaminated materials as a result of the construction process," says Underwood, "so the EPA was very excited about the process and the results."

Hanwha Q CELLS had an initial concern about possibly having to pay a premium to vendors and for labor with the solar farm being built on a Superfund site.

"In the end, that wasn't a challenge," says Underwood. "By the time we were looking at vendors, we had very good documentation and understanding from the EPA, we had developed our safety plan for the site, and we were able to share that with contractors immediately. At the end of the day, no one had to wear a Hazmat suit to be on the site, which would have been frightening to anyone." Other than typical construction gear, the only other safety stipulation for workers was not to eat or smoke on the site.

Given its experience with this project, Hanwha Q CELLS is scouting out other potential opportunities for solar farm installations on contaminated sites with the right circumstances to make further projects economically feasible.