By Mara Certic
In June, the East Hampton Town Board adopted a goal of meeting all of its electricity needs with renewable energy by the year 2020. A proposed wind farm off the coast of Montauk could produce a huge amount of energy for the East End, but East Hampton Town has also decided to take advantage of one of its other natural resources: the sun.
The invention of the first ever solar system dates back over 100 years, and the technology only continues to improve and become more effective. According to the 2013 Solar Market Insight Report, “more solar has been installed in the past 18 months than in the previous 30 years.” The report adds that in 2013, the state of California installed more solar than the entire country had in 2011.
As it tries to blaze a trail in the world of sustainability, East Hampton is looking into installing several different multi-megawatt solar arrays throughout the town. One distinction one must make when discussing solar power is the difference between solar thermal and photovoltaic conversion. Solar thermal electrical energy generation works by creating heat from the sun’s light. This heat then runs a heat engine, which turns a generator, making electricity.
“Solar thermal technology works very well here for residential and commercial water heating and is less costly than solar electric panels,” said Gordian Raacke, founder of Renewable Energy Long Island and a member of the East Hampton Town Energy Sustainability Advisory Committee. “Large, utility scale solar thermal systems such as ‘solar through’ or ‘concentrating solar’ systems, which make steam to run a steam turbine generating electricity are used in the South but not in our latitudes,” he said.
Photovoltaic energy uses solar panels to convert the sun’s light directly into electricity. This conversion occurs without any moving parts or environmental emissions and is clean and completely sustainable. This is the type of solar energy that East Hampton Town is considering using in various sites. The largest of the proposed sites would be located at the consistently controversial East Hampton Airport.
In February, the town board issued a request for proposals in conjunction with LIPA/PSEG’s goal to provide up to 280 megawatts of new, on-island renewable capacity and energy for the East End. The vast majority of this power would come from the proposed Deepwater ONE project off of Montauk; the rest would be from various solar fields.
“East Hampton Township agreed tentatively to a lease agreement for 37 megawatts [at the airport],” explained Mr. Raacke. The RFP sought out responses from solar contractors who are willing to install and maintain the solar panels at the airport at no cost to the town. The contractors would receive payment from PSEG-LI for the energy produced, and would then pay a portion of that income to the town as a lease payment.
“East Hampton is involved as the entity that provides the land for it and gets money from the developer in the form of an annual lease payment,” Mr. Raacke explained. “LIPA or PSEG-LI buys power from them the same way they buy power from a power plant they have under contract,” he said.
“These projects are all financed, constructed and operated by the developers. They bear the financial risk and the constructional and operational risk. If they run over budget, it’s their problem, if the solar panels have some sort of a problem they have to fix it.” he explained. The utility company will pay the contractors under a 20-year power purchase agreement only for the power that they produce.
“This makes it such an attractive proposition for the utility, and for everyone, because the price is known for 20 years. Whereas the price from a conventional power plant is not known. Nobody can say what other power is going to cost in 20 years,” he said, adding that there is no way of knowing what the price of natural gas or other fuels will be then. “Obviously, with solar power we know the cost: it’s free.”
After looking at various proposals, the sustainability committee made a recommendation of two solar contractors to the town board, SunEdison and S-Power. The committee’s report recommended that they both be given the opportunity to partake in the 280-megawatt program.
The almost 38 megawatts that the airport project would create, Mr. Raacke said, would produce enough power for approximately 5,000 homes. “And that could be much more if [the contractors] install what they say is possible there, which would be up to 50 or even 60 megawatts.”
The solar panels “would be in several locations alongside the runways,” Mr. Raacke said. “It would be located so that it poses no interference with the planes landing or taking off. It has to be approved by the FAA, and they look at things such as glare—there can’t be any glare for that would be happening when the pilot was landing or taking off,” he said.
He explained that SunEdison and S-Power provided designs that are compatible with the current FAA regulations, which ensure that the panels are a certain distance from the runways and are turned at angles so they would not interfere or endanger any of the flights in the area.
“SunEdison and other companies have done this before at airports,” Mr. Raacke said, adding that Denver International Airport has a large solar array. An airport watchdog group tentatively approved an offer earlier this month for SunEdison to lease land from Southampton Town for a multi-megawatt solar array at the Frank S. Gabreski Airport.
PSEG-LI has yet to make a decision or approve the proposals for the airport array. If it does, review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act will be undertaken. “Typically, this is a very benign use of land, there’s no fuel storage on site, these are simple structures that are erected on that land,” Mr. Raacke said.
John Botos, an environmental technician with the East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department, said that the studies would look to protect groundwater, limit the displacement of animals and minimize clearance of wetland areas.
The lease payment that the solar contractor would pay the town is still unknown. “It depends on how much it generates and how much PSEG would be willing to generate,” said East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby who acts as liaison for the sustainability committee. “After that we will go and negotiate for the lease payments and the amount of land they would need to have,” she said.
A representative from PSEG said on Wednesday that the utility company is currently going through the process of a Coordinated Electric System Interconnection Review of the airport site. It is expecting to finish the study in the next three to six weeks, the spokeswoman said, at which point it will be much closer to reaching a decision on the solar proposal. If approved, the 37-megawatt solar system at the East Hampton Airport could be operational by the end of 2016.