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Gov. Cuomo’s big promise to free the state fairgrounds of fossil fuels: What’s the status?

Scott Schild |

When the New York State Fair opened last August, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a surprise announcement: By 2023, he vowed, the fairgrounds would be completely free of fossil fuels and would run exclusively on renewable energy.

Will that ever happen?

That’s not clear. In the six months since the governor’s pledge, no details of the ambitious plan have emerged. The agency studying how such a massive shift could happen says it’s still in the study phase and that it’s too early to comment.

But here’s what we know from talking to energy experts: While building enough solar panels to provide the fair’s electricity would be straightforward and effective, heating the fairgrounds’ vast buildings all year would be much harder and could involve wholesale renovations to heating and hot water systems. No big gas user in the National Grid service area has ever done that.

“I definitely think solar is doable,” said Chris Carrick, energy program manager for the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board. “The heating side of things is trickier, especially with seasonal use that fluctuates a lot.”

In his “GreenFair” proposal, Cuomo specifically touted the construction of solar power and wind turbines “to capture renewable energy.” Most of the fair’s electricity, however, already comes from renewable sources, so much of that solar energy would simply swap one renewable energy with another.

Carrick, who has overseen solar installations in Central New York, said the 9 million kilowatt hours the fair used in 2018-2019 could be supplied by a 45-acre solar array. That would cost about $12 million to build, he said.

“That’s not a huge number in the scheme of things,” he said. “On the electrical side, I don’t see a lot of big barriers there.”

The fairgrounds’ most recent annual payment to Solvay Electric was about $416,000, so a $12 million investment in solar panels would represent about 30 years worth of electric bills. The long payoff time is partly good news, reflecting how cheap the fair’s electricity is now. Municipally owned Solvay Electric’s rates for an industrial user like the fair is about 40 percent lower than neighboring National Grid’s.

About three-quarters of Solvay Electric’s power, however, is generated by renewable hydropower. The utility buys electricity from the New York Power Authority, which generates power from dams on the Niagara River, said Solvay Electric Superintendent Joseph Hawksby. The federal Department of Energy considers hydropower to be renewable; rain falls every year and refills Lake Erie, which drains into Lake Ontario through the Niagara River.

The other problem with the fair installing its own solar power is that the electrical use isn’t constant throughout the year. The fair uses about a third of its annual electricity during the months of August and September. (Data provided by the fair breaks energy use down by month.)

“The fair uses a lot of power, but only for a small amount of time,” said Neal Abrams, a professor and renewable energy expert at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “Installing solar and/or wind exclusively for the fair doesn’t make sense, but if it is part of a larger state- or utility-owned project, it could.”

Abrams said it might make more sense for the fair to tap into community based solar projects. If the state wanted wind power at the fair, he said, there’s no reason to build new turbines when wind farms are already in place in in Madison county and Tug Hill.

Converting the fairgrounds’ 27 buildings from natural gas to renewables would be more problematic. The fair uses as much natural gas as 400 typical homes, and replacing all of that power with renewable sources could mean expensive retrofitting of buildings with geothermal units, heat pumps or other heating systems. No large gas user in the National Grid service area, where the fair lies, has done anything like that.

“National Grid has no experience with anyone that big who has made that type of a fuel switch,” said Chris Gorman, the company’s manager of community and customer management.

Abrams said the fair could retrofit the buildings with electric heat, but that’s expensive and an inefficient way to heat large spaces. The fair could also install geothermal units, which capture heat from the ground but still need electricity to raise or lower temperatures beyond that.

Geothermal is most efficient, however, when there’s a relatively constant draw of power year-round, he said. Like electricity, natural gas use at the fairgrounds is wildly uneven from season to season. Some buildings burn 500 times as much gas in winter as in summer.

The Center of Progress building, for example, used 123 therms of gas from June to September, but more than 67,000 therms from December to March. That’s based on usage data for the 2017-2018 state fiscal year, the most recent for which the fair provided monthly breakdowns of energy use.

Even during a given season, energy use in a particular building can vary depending on what events are held there.

“Sporadic use of geothermal is not a very fast heating method,” Abrams said. “With gas you can go through a lot of BTUs through forced heating.”

Smaller-scale alternatives could provide renewable energy for individual buildings or clusters of them, Abrams said. For example, he believes most of the natural gas during the fair is probably used for hot water, and it would be fairly simple and cost-effective to install solar thermal units on roofs to heat water.

Another option for the fair, Abrams said, is to do what ESF has done: Install a wood-pellet burner that provides hot water and heat to several buildings. At ESF, the burner system produces steam that provides 65% of the heating and 20% of electricity on campus, according to the college’s website.

That system isn’t fossil-fuel-free, though, because the pellet burner is supplemented by three natural gas turbines. And a pellet burner has the same problem as geothermal, Abrams said, in that it’s not efficient if used intermittently.

“Any heating system located on premises would have those types of issues,” he said.

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will be compounded by the fact that energy use at the fair has climbed rapidly. Electricity use rose by 50% and natural usage by about 45%, from the 2017-18 fiscal year to 2018-19. Fair spokesman Dave Bullard said that use of the fairgrounds also rose by 29%, “as measured in estimated attendance at those events.” The fair’s website says the grounds are host to 300 non-fair events each year.

Much of that increased energy use can be attributed to the new, 136,000-square-foot Expo Center. When the expo center opened for the 2018 fair, it instantly became the fair’s biggest building hungriest fossil fuel user. With its 60-foot ceiling, the Expo Center alone accounted for a 33% increase in the natural gas use of the entire fairgrounds. The fair paid $54,000 for natural gas in the center’s first eight months, about $20,000 more than the year-round gas bill for the 60,000-square-foot Center of Progress Building.

Electricity usage isn’t broken out by building in documents provided by the fair’s parent agency, the Department of Agriculture and Markets.

The fairgrounds’ energy use will climb again if, as Cuomo has proposed, the fair extends from 13 to 18 days. Assuming the fair consumes electricity during the extra five days at the same rate it does during the 13, electric use would rise about 40% for the extended fair.

The fair is taking steps to reduce energy use, the state said. Both Cuomo and the state agency conducting a study pointed to the replacement of light bulbs in six fair buildings with more efficient LED bulbs. Cuomo said that project cost $866,000 and will save $23,000 a year.

At that rate, it will take nearly 38 years to recoup the cost of those bulbs.

Cuomo’s GreenFair proposal also seeks to reduce trash and increase recycling. No details of those initiatives have been made public, either.

Cuomo’s proposal is being studied by the New York State Energy Research and Development. Officials there declined an interview, and in a 300-word email, offered few details of the study, saying it was too preliminary to comment on.


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