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Another Voice: N.Y. loses out when solar farm ownership is out of state

By Kean W. Stimm

Solar farms with out-of-state owners would drain an enormous amount of cash out of New York State and we’d pay more for the electric power. These huge solar projects are beginning to proliferate widely, so it is appropriate to analyze the costs, problems and benefits and develop a plan.

For example, the Sardinia and Concord project in southern Erie County, as described in The Buffalo News, states that a California firm has applied for a permit to create a 2,500-acre solar farm that will generate 350 megawatts of electrical power (350,000 kilowatts). The 350 megawatts is the average continuous output. Coal-fired power plants average 600 megawatts.

An acre of land is 43,560 square feet. One square foot of solar panel can generate about 15 watts per square foot with full sunlight. A 2,500-acre farm (3.9 square miles) generates 1,300 megawatts of electrical power at high noon assuming 80% utilization of the land.

In California, the sun shines about 27% of the time; in New York, about 20%. This accounts for nights, low sun angles, cloudy days and snow accumulation. Thus, for California, 27% of 1,300 is 350 megawatts of continuous power. For New York, 20% of 1,300 is 260 megawatts of continuous power. So, 260 x 24 hours x 365 days is a yearly output of 2.3 million megawatt hours. Maximum output would be about 1,000 megawatts with full sun at high noon. This is a lot of power.

A problem is huge undulations of power from zero to 1,000 megawatts while averaging 260 megawatts. A black cloud comes over and in one minute the power to the grid varies from 1,000 to zero; 20 minutes later it goes back up to 1,000 megawatts. Electric grids cannot handle these surges, hence a huge electricity storage system is required to accommodate utility power loads. These storage systems are very expensive, not 100% efficient and will lose over 10% of the power.

A transmission line is required to get the power from a remote farm area to an electric grid substation. It is probable that 20% or more of the power will be lost during transmission. Net delivered power becomes 2.3 million, minus 10%, minus 20%, equals 1.7 million megawatt hours of power per year; still a lot of power.

The solar farm sells this power to the utility at perhaps $62 per megawatt hour for annual income of about $105 million, less expenses such as land rental at $2.5 million, maintenance at $500,000 per year and property taxes. The enormous costs of finance and amortization are covered by the solar farm shareholders who finance the investment. This leaves a net income of more than $100 million per year that goes to California.

This can be avoided by allowing our electric utilities to own the solar panels, thus avoiding third parties. Further, the cost of electricity will be much lower for everyone in New York.

Kean W. Stimm is CEO and chief scientist for Kean Wind Turbines Inc., of Amherst.

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