Wind, solar and hydrogen fuel cells are quietly gaining on fossil fuels and could be poised to become dominant energy sources sooner than many might think, say industry experts who presented at the Rochester Beacon’s April 21 online event, “Alternative Energy: Potential for the Rochester Region.”
Canandaigua National Bank & Trust and the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute sponsored the event. Kent Gardner, chief economist at the Center for Governmental Research and Rochester Beacon opinion editor, was moderator.
Kathy Spencer, LaBella Associates principal environmental analyst, advises municipalities around New York on installation of solar arrays. Solar power now has a relatively modest footprint in the state’s cities, towns and counties, she says. The pace will soon pick up, however.
New laws and regulations are changing the picture, Spencer says. Until a few years ago, siting approval for solar and wind projects was up to local municipalities. Many, like wind projects proposed in Livingston County, stalled after meeting fierce local opposition.
In 2011, New York enacted Article 10, a provision that moved siting decisions for solar and wind projects to the state level. In 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act set renewable energy goals for the state to achieve. Last year, the state updated Article 10, passing the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, Section 94-C of Executive Law. The update created a state Office of Renewable Energy Siting, which is working to set new statewide standards for installing solar arrays and building wind farms.
First appearing in the Rochester area and other Empire State regions some five to seven years ago, solar power arrays now in place are all relatively small, community-scale projects, Spencer says. Soon to appear are utility-scale arrays that will dwarf existing projects.
Community-scale arrays are defined as those that generate 20 megawatts or less. Typical community-scale installations produce around 5 megawatts of power. Utility-scale arrays generate hundreds of megawatts. A megawatt is equal to 1 million watts or 1,000 kilowatts, and 1 megawatt of solar panels will generate more than 1,000 megawatt hours of solar energy per year. An average U.S. home consumes some 7,200 kilowatts in a year.
Currently, 145,000 community-scale solar arrays are producing all the solar power generated in New York—some 2,800 megawatts.
“Doing the math,” says Spencer, “you’ll see that none of them is very big.”
The 2019 Climate Leadership Act target for solar calls for New York to be producing 6,000 megawatts of solar power by 2025. Utility-scale solar projects with capacity to produce another 2,100 megawatts approved by the state in 2020 are in pipeline, Spencer says. Nearly half of that capacity—about 1,000 megawatts—is proposed for projects in the Rochester, Western New York, Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions.
Such projects would have a significant effect on the landscape. A 2-megawatt solar array built by Cornell University in Cortland County is made up of 9,000 panels and covers 14 acres. A proposed project LaBella Associates is working in Chautauqua County, the South Ripley Solar and Storage Project, was initially proposed to cover 5,900 acres. The 270-megawatt project currently on the drawing board would take up some 1,400 acres, Spencer says. Projects proposed to be built in Monroe and Livingston counties would similarly take up “major swathes of land,” she adds.
In Steuben County, a 25,000-acre site has been outlined for the Baron Winds Project, whose Phase I would consist of up to 33 wind turbines and may generate up to 126 MW of energy. The project site would be located in four towns: Cohocton, Dansville, Fremont and Wayland.
Offshore wind farms could one day be built in the Great Lakes including Erie and Ontario, predicts Ross Gould, vice president for business development of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, a Maryland-based nonprofit that promotes development of U.S. offshore wind projects.
The technology has been around for three decades, but not much in evidence in the United States, Gould says. There are currently 9,000 offshore wind turbines in 12 countries. Most such projects are in the United Kingdom, but China is “quickly catching up.”
While offshore turbines look similar to their land-based cousins, there are key differences. Offshore turbines are larger. Eight- and 12-megawatt offshore turbines made by General Electric would tower over both the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty. They also take longer to install and must have a special protective coating. There are currently two U.S. offshore wind farms: the Block Island Wind Farm, a five-turbine, Atlantic Ocean project off the coast of Rhode Island, and a two-turbine project off the coast of Virginia.
“This is a nascent industry,” Gould says, naming 15 projects proposed or in development off the Atlantic coastal shelf in several Eastern Seaboard states. “I think we’ll be seeing additional offshore wind of the coasts of the Great Lakes in coming years,” he predicts.
A 2018 Scientific American article looked at the possibility of Great Lakes offshore wind generation. While turbines would be easier to install in shallower Great Lakes waters, projects in lakes like Erie and Ontario would face winter icing, a problem that does not plague turbines installed in most ocean waters.
No Lake Ontario offshore wind project is currently proposed. Icebreaker Wind, a Lake Erie wind-turbine project off the Ohio coast, has been in development since 2009. The nonprofit formed to build the Icebreaker Wind project expects construction to get underway in 2022.
Daniel O’Connell first started working on hydrogen fuel-cell technology at the former General Motors Corp. fuel-cell project in Monroe County. After GM closed down the Honeoye Falls project, O’Connell co-founded American Fuel Cell, which was acquired by the Latham, N.Y-based Plug Power in 2018.
Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce water. Most hydrogen produced for that purpose today comes from pulling hydrogen out of natural gas in a process that produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Plug Power is working to produce green hydrogen with devices called electrolyzers that pull hydrogen out of water, creating no carbon dioxide.
Forty thousand Plug Power forklifts at distribution centers and warehouses serving Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Amazon.com, Home Depot, Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart and others are now in the field, O’Connell says.
The company is planning a nationwide U.S. green hydrogen production network that aims to turn out 500 tons of liquid hydrogen a day by 2025, O’Connell says. Seven sites across the country are planned. The first is being built in Genesee County. O’Connell says the $272 million project will have capacity to produce 120 megawatts of green hydrogen and create 68 jobs.
In addition to powering fork lifts and other vehicles, green hydrogen has a role to play in industries including power generation and manufacturing, O’Connell says. As wind and solar bring down the cost of producing electricity, the cost of producing liquid hydrogen will fall accordingly, creating a sort of green-energy loop in which each green-energy producer will help make the others more cost effective.
Some criticize wind, solar and hydrogen power generators as being artificially buoyed by government subsidies and tax breaks. But, notes Gould, such critics fail to take into account government subsidization in the form of tax breaks and cheap drilling leases on publicly owned land the much better developed oil and gas industries currently enjoy.
Also not taken into account by such critics is the price of environmental degradation and ill effects to health added by the burning of fossil fuel. Those costs, says Gould, are not subtracted from fossil fuel producers’ bottom lines but are instead borne by all of us.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.