Gigawatt Gardens: Reimagining power plants for the 21st century

What if, as part of the shift from a carbon-based to a renewable-centric world, we reimagined the very idea of an energy-producing facility? What if we create something new, that could enhance the health and wealth of the people and places that surround it—most especially the communities right on the “fence-line”? What if these new power plants were so desirable, every town in America wanted one?

When you hear the words “power plant”, what comes to mind? Most people probably envision towering facilities of smokestacks whose internal mechanics feature complex feats of science, technology, and engineering that transform raw material into the energy that powers everyday activities and economic growth. And this mental image, however technologically impressive, is likely a large, loud, dirty eyesore that devalues the neighborhoods near where it’s placed—one of the unfortunate necessities of modern life, that’s best located “not in my backyard”.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if instead of power plants, we built Gigawatt Gardens?

Many energy industry veterans have historically viewed the rising solar industry with some skepticism. Solar isn’t very energy dense, so you need a lot of panels to capture a substantial amount of power. Plus, you need large energy storage systems to hold enough energy for use when the sun wasn’t shining. And unfortunately, traditional lithium-ion battery technologies come with fire-safety issues, requiring large AC and fire suppression systems. All that infrastructure requires land—lots of it. It always seemed that communities wouldn’t want to give up valuable forests and fields for energy generation, no matter how green the source was. It was counter to the cause. So where could one put all those panels and systems?

It turns out, we've all been driving past the answer every day, in the emptying shopping malls and shuttered big box stores along our routes to and from work in almost any American suburb. These underperforming or abandoned retail spaces are called “greyfields” for a reason. They’re made up of nondescript buildings and flat parking lots—essentially large expanses of concrete and asphalt. Like traditional power plants, they’re undesirable structures, symbols of economic decline. And these greyfields are everywhere.

Recognizing that retail is never going to be what it was—that decades-long changes in consumer behavior aren’t likely to reverse themselves—owners and communities are now looking for ways to repurpose these properties. Greyfield sites benefit from existing connections to infrastructure—from utilities to transportation—and unlike brownfield sites, don’t require expensive environmental remediation. Many regions are finding they can easily be turned into server farms and delivery fulfillment centers. Unfortunately, such ventures have negative environmental impacts—server farms use an extraordinary amount of power, adding more strain to the grid, and fulfillment centers bring increased truck traffic, lowering air quality in the immediate area. There are other, more positive options being considered—medical centers, educational facilities, even low-income housing, all bringing needed services—but they all involve long, complex retrofits.

But what if instead, we turned them into solar plus Eos storage sites? The conversion would be relatively fast and simple. Our zinc-powered, fully-sealed Eos Znyth™ battery technology is safe—non-flammable and non-corrosive—so there’s no need for costly, space-hogging AC or fire prevention systems or external flow pumps, or the regular maintenance they require. Plus, our energy storage solutions are whisper-quiet. So they could be installed in virtually any greyfield site, no matter where it was located. Fill the existing empty floor space with our Eos Z3™ batteries, in our simple Eos Stack configuration, cover the entire building with a solar rooftop, add solar carports across the existing parking lot, tap into the structure’s existing grid connections—both to deliver stored energy to the community, but also to charge our batteries at night using off-peak power—and boom, you’ve got a solar plus storage facility. A single, standard, “first-generation” big-box store ranges from 50,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet. That’s the equivalent, at the low end, of about three of our Eos Hangars, at the high end, about 10, each one of which can store 10MW/40MWh—enough to potentially power several thousand homes.

With thoughtful design, and minimal additional investments, the sites could also become a hub for a greener, healthier community. Allocate a bit of the parking lot—generally several times the size of the retail buildings themselves—to provide the amenities of a basic park, making it a place people want to be. Ring the site with a track for people to walk and add a small playground for children, benefiting everyone’s physical and mental health. Add a few benches and picnic tables where people can come together, enabling community connection. And green these spaces—even in between and under the solar carports—with conservation and biodiversity in mind, incorporating plantings that can serve as a stop along a pollinator pathway.

Even in this simple vision, every one of these Gigawatt Gardens could provide communities with a unique combination—both green power and green places—that would fundamentally change the conversation about this type of infrastructure and ensure everyone, everywhere can participate in the fight against climate change, reap the benefits of renewable power, and create local grid resilience. They could make a truly decentralized, democratized, decarbonized energy ecosystem possible.

But at Eos, we also envision something even more ingenious. Gigawatt Gardens unique to their locations, that engage local residents in their conception, and that respond to local needs and local opportunities. Gigawatt Gardens that revitalize retail, rebuild communities, and re-envision entertainment.

Revitalizing retail

We’ve all seen dying malls—and we know that each store that closes makes it harder for the ones that remain. But that cycle could be reversed by making these sites destinations for green consumers, with solar plus Eos storage systems installed into one or more of the existing storefronts, as the catalyst.

Imagine a relatively small mall, maybe a “strip mall”, in a community like San Diego. A Gigawatt Gardens concept could be the reason that established healthy-lifestyle businesses, like grocers and sellers of outdoor clothing and gear, need to return to brick and mortar, if we made the site a place their shoppers wanted to be. Not only do we bring in the simple park, we provide other amenities—a space for food trucks, so people can enjoy new tastes in the outdoor eating spaces, a climbing wall to complement the children’s playground, and EV charging stations that people can use while doing errands. By bringing all of this into one place, we shift the site from a place that people drive by to a place that people drive to.

But the benefits go even further—each of the features that could make it a lively retail environment would also have a larger positive impact. Local food trucks and places to picnic build the local economy. Climbing walls, in combination with the playgrounds, bring opportunities for exercise and healthier living. EV charging stations aren’t just convenient, they would use the power we’re creating through the solar plus storage installation—lessening stress on the existing grid.

Rebuilding community

Fence-line neighborhoods in cities like Detroit paid the environmental and health price for 20th century industrialization—and now the economic and demographic cost of de-industrialization. But with solar plus Eos storage installations as the catalyst, abandoned city blocks could be rebuilt as centers for healthy living and green entrepreneurship. To start, any safe, standing buildings could be converted to energy storage centers, or new, prefabricated Eos Hangars could be put in their place.

But again, imagine taking the Gigawatt Garden beyond the simple park. Tap into the growing urban agriculture movement, adding both an outdoor, traditional community garden and indoor, high-tech vertical garden. Offer small retail environments for startup businesses that focus on healthy, green food, beauty, and household products. Take it even further and co-locate with STEM after-school programs or urgent-care health facilities.

With added features like these, the value of the site could reach beyond simply improving access to renewable power in underserved communities—it could also help build more vibrant, sustainable economies for the long-term. Not just expanding local food supply, but investing in new farming technologies and the next generation of farmers. Not just creating local retail markets, but educating and encouraging young business innovators.

Re-envisioning entertainment

If there’s anything we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s the importance of wide, open, outdoor spaces as places to gather for entertainment—the kinds of community spaces that can make a region top those lists of “great places to live and work”, that draw new residents and employers. Could a solar plus Eos storage installation be the catalyst to create such an environment? Why not?

Just imagine what a Gigawatt Garden could be if it took over the entirety of land currently occupied by a large, long-abandoned suburban mall, with potentially tens of acres of land—say in an area outside of city like Pittsburgh, near where our own manufacturing facilities are located. The size of such a site, with all existing, unsafe structures razed, makes it possible to create huge outdoor entertainment resources.

At its heart would be a series of our prefabricated Eos Hangars and associated solar arrays, surrounded by covered market-spaces that can provide a venue for local farmers and craftspeople, rain or shine, and outdoor theatres that can ensure a thriving cultural scene or enable grassroots educational groups to reach larger crowds for lectures or events. Add in charging stations, to support residents’ switch to EVs—as well as the community’s transition of public transportation to battery-powered buses—weave in miles of bike trails, and you’ve got a “power plant” that would energize the community.

Every community across America has differing priorities, and the beauty of the Gigawatt Garden concept is that it can be tailored to each of those situations. But as much as they may differ, every community needs more green power and more green places.

As the push towards a carbon-neutral future continues, we must all choose to see the ubiquitous greyfields that dot our landscapes not as symbols of an economic time that has come and gone, but as an opportunity to usher in a new era of sustainability and green energy. The land we need to build our clean energy future without losing space to new development is all around. If we can energize our communities, we can revitalize retail environments, rebuild neighborhood hubs, and reimagine outdoor entertainment. We can plant the seeds of these ambitions in Gigawatt Gardens.