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Fairgrounds Solar: Finally Seeing the Light After 15 Years

There’s an old saying among actors: “It takes 15-20 years to be an overnight success.”

The same could be said for solar energy projects at the nation’s fairgrounds.

“Fairgrounds have been experimenting with solar energy since at least 2002,” said John Wright, a solar energy expert based in Las Vegas. “But it’s taken till the past couple years for solar to become a no-brainer for fairgrounds and large convention centers.”

Wright recalls that it was back in 2002 – “around the time of the dinosaurs,” he says -- that a California fair association chose a Korean solar panel manufacturer to build some 2.4 megawatts of solar generation throughout the state. Eventually some nine state fairs lined up financing from a state agency.

The first project in Ventura, CA was designed to provide backup generation after the rolling blackouts that plagued California in 2001. Interest in solar was also driven by growing concern about carbon emissions, despite the fact that solar was still a costly new technology.

“Those early solar deals were feel-good projects that made for great publicity but lousy economics,” Wright says. “Fairgrounds had to take on debt and put themselves at risk.”

By contrast, Wrights says, “Today fairgrounds can build solar with no out-of-pocket costs and immediate savings on utility bills. A whole industry has evolved to make it easy and costs have dropped to the point where it is more expensive not to install solar.”

Since the pioneering projects in California, at least a dozen fairgrounds around the country have installed solar on livestock pavilions, 4-H barns, riding arenas and other structures. A couple ground mount solar farms have been built on empty land. And at least one fairground in Oregon has built solar-powered street lamps for parking lots.

After California, Oregon appears to have the largest number of fairground solar projects followed by New York. Fairgrounds in Arizona, Iowa and New Jersey, Virginia and Washington all boast installations.

One of the newest projects was completed this past summer for the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta, New Jersey. The 540 kW array will offset about 75% of the electricity historically consumed at the New Jersey State Fair and Sussex County Farm and Horse Show held for two weeks every August.

The project cost about $1.5 million and required no up front costs for the solar panels. The panels were installed by a third party developer. The Sussex County Fairgrounds will pay only for the solar energy actually produced by the array.

Not only was there no installation cost to the Sussex County Fairgrounds. If for any reason the solar panels need maintenance and stop producing, the Fairgrounds would stop payments until the solar developer fixed the panels.

Wright explains that the New Jersey project is a good example of how solar can work for fairgrounds that are not opened year round. The local utility – Public Service Gas & Electric -- buys the solar power that is generated by the panels during the 50 weeks a year when the fairgrounds is closed.

Then, during the 2-week period when the fair is open, the utility credits the excess solar to the meters on the fairgrounds.

The process of crediting customers with the value of their solar electricity is known as “net metering.” New Jersey and 45 other states permit net metering. Net metering ensures that the value of the solar electricity generated is not lost when the grounds are vacant but can be applied against utility bills as soon as the gates open to the public.

In most of the country, the price paid for solar electricity will be lower than conventional utility electricity costs, Wright said. “Over the past two years, solar panel prices have dropped with the result that the price you pay for solar electricity is often less than utility prices.”

He sited as an example Rifle, CO where the Garfield County Fairgrounds installed a 100 kW system on top of the riding arena in 2011. 440 panels covered a roof area 37 feet wide and 217 feet long.

At the time of installation the local utility, Xcel Energy, was charging Garfield County 5.3 cents per kilowatt hour. Under the power purchase agreement, the fairgrounds agreed to pay 2.25 cents per kilowatt hour of solar electricity produced.

Solar projects do not guarantee savings, however. In some places like Tennessee electricity prices are so low – from low-cost hydro electric plants – that solar cannot compete. As a general matter, utility prices can go down as well as up. If they go down far enough, solar costs may prove to be more expensive than utility supply.

However, wherever solar makes sense in the short run it will probably pay dividends in the long run. Solar projects provide a hedge against the potential for future electricity price increases. In many parts of the country utilities are investing heavily in infrastructure improvements – upgrades to the smart grid, for example – and these will translate into additional costs for ratepayers.

Solar customers will avoid these additional utility costs because they generate their own power locally and do not pay for costly transmission.

Like many other solar projects, the Garfield County Fairgrounds project in Colorado relied on federal tax incentives and utility grants such as about $8,000 per year in renewable energy credits. Sometimes the grants go directly to the fairgrounds. In other cases the tax credits and other incentives will go to the developer which will pass them on to the fairgrounds in the form of lower costs per kilowatt hour of solar electricity produced.

Some fairgrounds may also be eligible for specialized incentive programs such as the Rural Energy for America Program (or REAP), an initiative of the US Department of Agriculture.

Fairgrounds solar projects come in all sizes. There are small ones like the 34 kW system in Cochise County, AZ and the 38 kW systems in Lake County, IL and Washington County, IA. And there are large ones like the Del Mar Fairgrounds north of San Diego with its 1 mW solar array (that’s one megawatt or 1000 kilowatts, enough electricity to power over 100 homes for a year).

Wright recommends to large electricity consumers that they have nothing to lose by evaluating the potential benefits of solar installations. They can hire consultants who will charge a fee for analyzing their alternatives. Or they can turn to a company like Solomon Energy, a company that Wright works with, to help them run an RFP and then help negotiate contracts with vendors.

“Some projects will be no-brainers and others will be more of a judgment call,” Wright warns. “But now that solar prices have dropped so much it makes sense for everybody to evaluate the benefits which are huge.”

Solar also offers fairgrounds a number of benefits beyond the obvious ones of reducing utility bills, Wright says. The projects protect against sudden utility price spikes. If utilities begin to charge more for daytime usage, fairgrounds will be rewarded for producing electricity during the peak sunshine hours. Finally, recent advances in battery storage technology may provide valuable backup generation in the event of utility outages.

“Ironically, battery storage may be the answer to what drove the very first fairgrounds solar projects in California, namely, backup generation,” Wright says. “And now, with lower costs, solar can provide fairgrounds with benefits that couldn’t be imagined 15 years ago.”

Overnight success, indeed.


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