On March 11, 2020 Glenn Coin at the Syracuse Post Standard posted a paywalled article at syracuse.com entitled Governor Cuomo’s big promise to free the state fairgrounds of fossil fuels: What’s the status? This post addresses the prospects for a fossil-free State Fair.
I am a retired electric utility meteorologist with nearly 40 years-experience analyzing the effects of meteorology on electric operations. I have also spent a lot of time evaluating electric load and generation variability. That background served me well preparing this post. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Mr. Coin did a good job describing the problems involved, but he did not critically evaluate what he was told by the energy experts he interviewed. On the basis of his interviews he concluded “While building enough solar panels to provide the fair’s electricity would be straightforward and effective, heating the fairgrounds’ vast buildings all year would be much harder and could involve wholesale renovations to heating and hot water systems”. This post will concentrate on the claim that providing electricity from renewable resources would be “straightforward and effective”.
Coin quoted Chris Carrick, energy program manager for the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board as saying that “solar is doable”. Carrick, who has overseen solar installations in Central New York, said “the 9 million kilowatt hours the fair used in 2018-2019 could be supplied by a 45-acre solar array and that would cost about $12 million to build”. Coin pointed out that there would be a problem if the fair installed its own solar power because the electrical use isn’t constant throughout the year. Using monthly data provided by the Fair Data he found that it uses about a third of its annual electricity during the months of August and September.
Coin also interviewed a professor and renewable energy expert at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Dr. Neal Abrams. “The fair uses a lot of power, but only for a small amount of time,” Abrams, “Installing solar and/or wind exclusively for the fair doesn’t make sense, but if it is part of a larger state- or utility-owned project, it could.” Abrams said it might make more sense for the fair to tap into community based solar projects. If the state wanted wind power at the fair, he said, there’s no reason to build new turbines when wind farms are already in place in in Madison county and Tug Hill.
For the purposes of this post I am going to calculate what renewable resources would be required to meet the Governor’s proposal. In my opinion the claim should stand on its own with new renewable resources. What the fair does not need can be used elsewhere but it should not rely on existing sources or projects in development designated for other purposes. Otherwise Governor Cuomo could already have said the State Fair gets all its electric power from renewables instead of a promise for the future.
In order to properly calculate the requirements to make New York State Fair electricity fossil-free detailed historical load information is needed. I don’t have that information so I am going to have to explain what I am assuming about load and why I am assuming it. Ultimately, I hope to show readers the difficulties glossed over by the renewable energy proponents that Mr. Coin interviewed. If you don’t want to wade through the numbers then skip the analysis section and cut to the chase.
I am going to focus on Chris Carrick’s claim that “solar is doable”. He said “the 9 million kilowatt hours the fair used in 2018-2019 could be supplied by a 45-acre solar array and that would cost about $12 million to build”. I will show solar is not so doable or cheap unless you use his simplistic approach.
One of the difficulties explaining technical information is the need for background information. Another problem is there is little room for the details and, frankly, no public appetite for the boring minutiae needed to check numbers so it is understandable why that information was not included in the article. I don’t have any space restrictions and will try to keep readers awake long enough in this explanation section so that you understand my calculations and conclusions.
A primary problem with solar energy is that it is intermittent. Obviously at night there can be no solar energy generated and when it is cloudy the amount produced is lower than on a clear day. The capacity factor (the actual amount of energy produced divided by the maximum possible amount of energy produced) is a measure of the availability of any electric generation source. I will use that parameter in this analysis to calculate how much energy can be produced for a solar farm of a given size over a given time.
I chose to use performance information from a local solar installation to evaluate the claim that solar is doable and would cost about $12 million. I used the Onondaga County Oak Orchard Waste Water Treatment Plant (OOWWTP) which has data in the New York State Energy & Research Development Authority Distributed Energy Resources system. The first data reported from this installation is dated 31 August 2018. The facility was developed by Tesla Energy Operations, Inc. with a rated electric generation capacity of 2,523 kW. Even though this is about ten miles away from the Fair I chose the site because it is relatively new, is at the same elevation as the state fair so there should be no problem with orographic cloud so cloudiness should be relatively similar, and because there wasn’t anything with data available really close to the fair grounds.
According to Coin’s article the fair used 9 million kilowatt hours in 2018-2019. I will assume that is an annual number. In 2019 OOWWTP generated 2,363,640 kW of electricity for a capacity factor of 10.7%. In other words, it produced 937 kWh for each kW of capacity. In order to produce 9 million kWh the facility would have to have a capacity of 9,607 kW. The article did not give a capacity but did state that a 45-acre solar farm could provide the electrical energy needed. Assuming 66 square feet generates 1kW of solar energy 9,607 kW would require 14.6 acres of solar panels. Another way to calculate the space needed from OOWWTP is by estimating the area of the solar array from a satellite view. I estimate that the OOWWTP array itself covers 7.54 acres and scaling that by the kW capacity produces an area of 28.7 acres. My annual estimate appears to be significantly different that the Carrick’s quoted 45 acres of panels so I assume he did not use the annual number to estimate the size of the needed solar farm.
Even though I cannot reasonably say that my estimates of the annual solar electric generation reasonably match the article’s estimate it does not matter much because using annual numbers is wrong. I will show below that the time period used to estimate the necessary resources matters a lot.
The article notes that “The fair uses about a third of its annual electricity during the months of August and September”. The annual number is 9 million kWh so for those two months 3 million kWh is needed. The good news is that 2019 monthly capacity factors ranged between 2.14% and 19.44% and the higher numbers are in the summer. The Monthly Solar Output Onondaga County Oak Orchard WWTP table lists all the monthly values. I calculated that the capacity factor for the two months would be 14.13%. In August and September 2019 OOWWTP generated 521,976 kWh of electricity. Therefore, it produced 207 kWh for each kW of capacity. In order to produce 3 million kWh the facility would have to have a capacity of 14,500 kW. Based on the data for these two months the solar facility would have 1.5 times larger capacity than one sized based on annual data. Assuming 66 square feet generates 1kW of solar energy 14,500 kW would require 22.0 acres of solar panels and scaling the size of the OOWWTP array would be 43.3 acres. That is pretty close to Carrick’s 45 acres so let’s assume he used the monthly numbers to estimate the necessary resources.
Of course, most of the power is used during the 13-day run of the fair itself. In order to estimate the daily requirements, I arbitrarily assume that the power used during the State Fair days is ten times the power used on the other 49 days in August and September. I calculate that the average power used on a State Fair day is 167,598 kWh. The Daily 2019 State Fair Electric Energy (kWh) Needed and Production Equivalent to Oak Orchard WWTP Solar System table lists the data used to calculate the average State Fair day electric energy need and the daily output and daily capacity factor from the OOWWTP. Using the same methodology to determine how much electric energy could be generated for each 1 kW of capacity the table lists the capacity needed for each day of the 2019 Fair season. There probably are daily difference sin energy use as a function of the attendance but I did not try to estimate that effect. Nonetheless, we can see that even on the day with largest capacity factor (8/25/2019) the capacity needed for one state fair day doubles the monthly estimate and that a facility with a capacity of 30,415 kW would be needed. Importantly note that the day to day variation of the capacity factor. On the worst day you would need to over 171,000 kW of capacity using these assumptions about daily load at the State Fair and that would require a solar facility nearly 12 times larger than one based on the monthly numbers. I assume that would be an overestimate because on the day with the lowest solar capacity problem also was the lowest attendance day so probably was not only cloudy but raining.
Renewable proponents rarely acknowledge the time period problem shown here because it makes their cost estimate of the renewable resource worse. There is an even bigger problem that is rarely mentioned. The all renewable resource plan should also account for energy storage needed when winds are calm at night. The Hourly State Fair Electric Energy (kW) Requirements and Estimated Deficit table lists estimated hourly loads and potential solar and wind hourly output. In order to estimate the hourly load, I made assumptions about the hourly load in the State Fair Hours Weight column. I assumed that hours 19 through 22 would be maximum load and that hour 02 through 06 would be 15% of the maximum. The column lists the hourly assumed load as a percentage of the maximum load for all the hours. I used that information and the assumed 167,598 kWh of a State Fair day value to calculate the hourly loads shown.
The table also lists the hourly renewable energy outputs which can be combined with the hourly load estimate to determine the margin between the two. Remember that the Governor wants to make State Fair electricity all renewable so at the end of the day the cumulative margin should be positive. In this analysis I estimated how much wind and solar would be available on the best solar capacity factor day. I estimated that a solar facility (capacity of 30,415 kW) based on the previous daily requirement analysis combined would be needed and combined that with the OOWWTP output data for August 25, 2019 to predict solar generation. I utilized the same approach to calculate the capacity that would be needed for a wind farm to power the same average daily load. II used the capacity factor from all the onshore wind farms during the State Fair and calculated that 23,423 kW of wind capacity would be needed to provide 1,675,978 kWh. Hourly wind data downloaded from the NYISO real-time dashboard were used to calculate the hourly capacity factors needed to estimate hourly availability of wind on August 25, 2019.
The analysis shows that there are five hours when the combined solar and wind energy resources are insufficient to power the State Fair. The Governor’s promise to use only renewable resources should include energy storage costs for those five hours when winds are light at night. A recently released report from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL): “2018 U.S. Utility-Scale Photovoltaics-Plus-Energy Storage System Cost Benchmark” provides information that can be used to estimate the costs of the energy storage option. I explained how information from that report could be modified to estimate costs for any configuration in another posted essay. In the Calculated Cost Breakdown $ per kWh Parameters for a U.S. Li-ion Standalone Storage System table I show how to estimate the costs for a solar-only system ($30.5 million) and a combined solar and wind system ($9 million) to meet the shortfalls for this example State Fair day.
There is another consideration with Li-Ion battery storage systems. The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) report Life Prediction Model for Grid-Connected Li-ion Battery Energy Storage System notes that in order to maximize battery life the batteries have to be operated such that a limited operating range is used. In particular the report says that they must use “active thermal management and cycle the battery within a restricted 54% operating range”. When the operating range limitation is included the battery storage costs increase to $55.7 million for the solar-only system and $16.8 million for the solar and wind system. Don’t forget that is only for ten years!
Conclusion aka The Chase
As noted before Chris Carrick claimed “solar is doable”. He said “the 9 million kilowatt hours the fair used in 2018-2019 could be supplied by a 45-acre solar array and that would cost about $12 million to build”. Using the information available in the article I was not able to reproduce those values exactly so I am not sure what assumptions were used.
I used historical data from a nearby 2,523 kW solar array to compare with Carrick’s numbers. Using 2019 annual operating capacity in order to produce 9 million kWh the capacity of a solar array would have to be 9,607 kW. However, the proportion of the size of the local solar array to the size of the array needed is 29 acres which is not particularly close to the size Carrick claimed would be needed. I assume that even though he mentioned needing 9 million kWh that he did not use that value to calculate the size.
The fair uses about a third of its annual electricity during August and September. Using the observed operating characteristics of the local array I determined that the size of the array necessary to provide the State Fair with that amount of power would have to be 14,500 kW. The proportion of that amount of power to the local array indicates that new array would have to be 43 acres so I assume that Carrick sized his array based on the August and September data.
However, in order for renewable resources to provide all the electricity for the State Fair we need to look at the renewable resources and energy use on the ten days when the State Fair is open. Using the best local data availability and my estimated daily energy usage the solar array necessary to meet the Fair’s needs would have to have a capacity of 30,415 kW, over twice as large as using a monthly estimate to determine needs. The Daily 2019 State Fair Electric Energy (kWh) Needed and Production Equivalent to Oak Orchard WWTP Solar Systemtable shows that daily variation is high. On the worst-case day, you would need a solar array of 171,000 kW capacity nearly 12 times larger than one based on a monthly value.
Proponents of renewable energy typically ignore the short-term renewable requirements but there is an even bigger problem. Any plan to become 100% fossil free needs to account for the fact that energy storage is required at night when the winds are light. On August 25, 2019 I determined that there were five hours when solar and wind energy resource output would be insufficient to power the fair and that energy storage would be required. I estimated that 23 MWh of energy storage would be required to balance the deficits observed. In order to maximize battery life the operating range of Li-Ion batteries is only 54% so that means that batteries capable of providing 43 MWh are needed.
I was not able to verify Carrick’s cost estimate of $12 million dollars. However, using daily data instead of monthly data increases the solar power needed between two and twelve times his estimate so it will be more expensive than he claimed. In order to minimize energy storage cost, I included output from a 24,423 kW wind farm which I would expect to be on the order of the same cost of the solar array. Even with the wind farm, the energy storage cost to backup the solar array adds another $16.8 million dollars. If we assume that the wind and solar resources can last 30 years then that means that the battery cost will be tripled.
In conclusion, I expect that the cost of the solar array will be at least doubled if the daily needs of the State Fair are considered, in order to minimize energy storage a wind farm costing about the same as the original solar array has to be included, and energy storage at about the cost of the original solar array will be needed three times over the lifetime of the solar array. Add them all up and I estimate that the true cost of renewables is at least six times higher than Carrick’s estimate of $12 million.
Mr. Coin concluded “While building enough solar panels to provide the fair’s electricity would be straightforward and effective”. If costs are no object then it is “doable”, but I challenge the “straightforward and effective” conclusion. The claim that all that is needed is a 45 acre solar facility is wrong if we are to provide the State Fair with all the electric power needed during the ten days the fair is open. In the cheapest scenario I estimate that the solar array has to be at least twice as large, a wind farm with ten 2.5 MW wind turbines and an energy storage array totaling 43 MWh would be needed.
I don’t have the time to comment on Mr Coin’s conclusion that “heating the fairgrounds’ vast buildings all year would be much harder and could involve wholesale renovations to heating and hot water systems”. However, all the problems that I found for the summertime use of electricity at the fairgrounds are compounded in the winter because the solar resource is so much lower.
Finally, there is one last aspect of Cuomo’s, dare I say it, grandstanding. What about transportation at the State Fair? With the exception of some of the buses that provide shuttle service, all the transportation servicing the Fair are powered by fossil fuels. That includes trucks bringing food and material, moving the midway with all the carnival rides and attractions, and all the farmers bringing livestock to exhibit. Finally even the on-site the trams used to get around are pulled by fossil-fired tractors.
Do not hold your breath waiting for a truly fossil free New York State Fair.