A New Battery Factory is Turning an Old Brownfield Green


By Maura Forrest

November 6, 2014

An old cigarette factory will soon be making batteries to store excess wind and solar power that would otherwise go to waste.

The new battery technology could substantially increase the efficiency of renewable power production. But the plant is also the latest example of how old industrial sites can be used for new, green energy.

Swiss-based Alevo Group opened the new factory in North Carolina on Tuesday. The company says its new rechargeable batteries will store surplus power and release it during peak hours cheaply and efficiently. Currently, much of the surplus renewable energy produced on sunny or windy days goes to waste, because it cannot be stored inexpensively.

“If we can take some of the massive energy that is wasted today by mismanagement of the grid and inject it where it is needed, everybody wins,” said Alevo CEO JosteinEikeland in an interview with the Guardian, calling the development a “game changer.”

The new lithium ferrophosphate and graphite batteries are supposed to cost a fraction of what traditional lithium-ion batteries cost, and have a lifespan of 40,000 charges. Eikeland estimates that the factory will create 2,500 jobs over the next three years.

But the plant’s location in an old Philip Morris factory also shows that brownfields – abandoned sites previously used for industrial or commercial purposes – are an important resource for the clean energy industry.

Across the U.S., old industrial sites from landfills to shipyards are being repurposed for green energy production. Using brownfields for solar or wind farms tends to be less controversial than constructing new sites, and the new developments often bring the promise of new jobs.

In Canada, there are similar moves to convert brownfields to green energy projects.

The city of Kimberley, B.C. is currently building the largest solar power project in western Canada on a former mine site now owned by Teck Metals.

In Windsor, empty factories that used to serve the auto manufacturing sector are now being used to build wind turbines and solar panels, though three of those plants closed in 2011 and 2012 due to lack of market growth.

And in 2013, a Canadian Solar photovoltaic project on a former lignite mining strip in Germany was named the International 2012 Solar Project of the Year.

Still, the cost of redeveloping brownfields can be prohibitive. For instance, a B.C. government report found that many developers avoid brownfields due to the “significant demolition and infrastructure upgrading costs,” “additional time, complexity and process uncertainty,” and the potential cost of cleaning up contamination.