In early September 2009, I was privileged to attend an information session at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) regarding the proposed 32 MegaWatt (MW) solar power plant to be installed on site. The presentation was given my Timothy M. Green, Natural Resource Manager of the Environmental Protection Division and consisted of an overview of the BP (British Petroleum) Solar Project. The plan is to build the largest solar power plant ever in NY on Long Island, and would involve collaboration with the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), BNL, and BP while following Governor Patterson’s 45 by 15 plan. The Governor’s policy calls for 45% of NY State’s energy to be generated by renewable sources and improved energy efficiency. This is a great shift forward, if in fact it can be implemented.
Solar Electric Generation Facility Competes with Oil-Fired Power Plants
Patterson’s call to create this solar power plant as part of his 45 by 15 plan is an excellent moderate goal for several reasons, but a poorer long term goal. This is a positive short term goal because the construction of a solar power plant in the tri-state area will serve to demonstrate feasibility of solar power generation on a large scale to New Yorkers, educate consumers about the capabilities of this technology, provide a testing ground for BNL photovoltaic researchers, and raise awareness about solar energy to the general public. Also, it is extremely important to note that this plant will be operated, managed and connected to the grid by LIPA – a non-profit NY State electric utility company. They are responsible for distributing electricity to all Long Island residents, though LIPA does not currently own any electric generation assets. LIPA functions by outsourcing distribution and transmission line maintenance to NationalGrid. The construction of this new plant is different from the current model, in which the oil-fired power plants in this region are operated and managed solely by National Grid without a single other power company existing in the region to compete and drive down prices. Therefore, the solar power electric generation facility which will not be owned by National Grid represents the first source of competition for electric utilities in this region.
Weakness of Large Scale Solar Power Plants Compared to Small, Locally Owned Solar Powered Electric Generation Facilities
However, the weakness in creating large scale solar power plants for electricity production for individual and commercial usage is that it is unsustainable. In the future, if we were to build enough new solar power production plants to sustain the Long Island region we would require much more land than is available for new development (data forthing). The alternative solution is too construct individual ‘power plants’ at the end user’s location by installing photovoltaic (PV) arrays at the actual site of energy consumption – another words, install solar panels at home or work. This would (1) marginalize the environmental impact and reduce development costs by eliminating the need to tear down trees and build plants on empty land; and (2) increase efficiency and reduce costs by eliminating electricity lost during long-distance transmission from the power plant to the consumer.
Environmental Impact and Research Component
In September of ’09, it was announced that this facility would be producing 50MW. In the last 4 months, the total power output has been reduced roughly 30% to 35MW, which takes a significant amount of benefit out of the proposed advantages of this project. Upon questioning, the representatives of this project stated that one major advantage of this plant over smaller, locally owned PV systems would be savings due to the “economies of scale”. A 30% reduction in power output and probably panel construction lowers this benefit. During the meeting with LIPA and BNL representatives it was states that LIPA wanted “to provide more green energy to [their] customers”. They solicited a proposal for large scale power plant construction and received many offers. The audience at this talk received some information on the technical specifications of this operation as well as alot of ‘greenwashing’. Greenwashing is the act of stating rhetoric in order to improve public image. However, in this case, the greenwashing is being backed by significant action so some rhetoric is in order, such as “we must diversify our energy resources to increase security”. No offense, but adding 32MW to the grid is not going to do much to reduce dependence on foreign oil. It is really just a first step.
The plant will cost $220m and the panels will be manufactured by BP in the USA. BP is seeking a ROI over 20yr, the length of its contract with DOE. The panels will be standard crystalline PV modules and will take up 200 acres. Total acreage of the lab is 5,625 acres. By optimizing space, the laboratory was able to reduce the standard 8-10 acres/MW to 5 acres/MW. This will be achieved by closely packing the panels with 18.5ft of spacing apart to gain maximum efficiency without causing loss due to shadowing. Construction would occur right in the middle of the lab. The arrays would be interdispersed with smaller step-up transformers (converting DC->AC power) sprinkled throughout the plant. A final step-up facility will be used to bring the voltage to 69kV in order to be compatible with voltage already along the grid. The electricity produced would not be for the lab and the Department of Energy will continue to own the land. If approved, construction will begin in Spring 2010 and go online May 2011. While the facility would create jobs by requiring 200 people for construction, it will only require 2 people to manage the plant. There are no moving parts.
Research and Commercial PV Array Specifications and Location
Approximately 10 acres of this plant will be dedicated towards a research array which would produce 1-2MW of power for the lab. These panels will be used to study battery storage systems, the effects of local climate on PV modules, and how fluctuations in the grid impact output. The 37MW plant should be capable of producing 40m kWhrs/yr. These panels are projected to last up to 40 years, It will require 500,000 gallons of water/yr just to wash the panels.
Other locations on the BNL site were considered. A dispersed system along roadways was ruled out since it would be difficult and inefficient to connect these panels. The goal is to direct energy from the PV arrays to the LIPA substation – and a disparate chain of panels would require more voltage and pipeline to link the arrays. During peaks hours LIPA will be able to reduce the load of its current grid and avoid 1.2m metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. For reference, 2000 acres of 75 yr old trees sequester 2.2 thousand cubic tonnes of carbin dioxide. I did not realize that trees sequester most of their carbon while growing – a good excuse to plant more!
Summary and Conclusions
In summary, this is an inspirational and practical project that I believe will seriously benefit the regional economy and environment. However, I still fail to understand why the 200 acres of PV arrays were not built on rooftops. Considering the average house uses 5,256 Kw-hours/year then this 40million kW plant should be capable of powering ~7,160 homes. If each home takes up 0.5 acres then we would have ~3,600 acres available to build panels. Therefore the 7,160 homes which are being powered by this lone plant could potentially produce much more power combined if they were equipped with their own PV systems. Some further calculations – assuming each home is 0.5 acres, but only has 0.25 acres os usable area for panels then this reduce our total acreage available to 1,800 acres. Assuming BNL’s factor of 5 acres/MW then 7,160 homes could be capable of producing 360 MW. This is 10x the power of the current plant. Therefore, the government should seriously consider investing in PV systems for the individual homeowner, rather than municipal utilities in order to account for increased efficiencies.
How Many Solar Panels Do I Need to Power my House?
New Project Developments
BP Long Island Solar Farm – Environmental Review
enXco Eastern Long Island Solar Project – 17MW of Solar Energy to be constructed on Suffolk county Public Land