Pocono Raceway Solar Farm: Sheep Power

People often point to NASCAR as being an environmentally unredeemable sport because it involves cars burning gasoline. For some reason, people looking for an easy answer like to suggest that NASCAR turn to electric cars and that would make everything better.

But the cars on track are a very (very) small part of the environmental load of a NASCAR race. You have to consider the whole event, including the energy demands of the track, the environmental impact of the fans and even what happens to leftover food from an event. And in those areas, NASCAR is doing as well as — if not better than — their stick-and-ball counterparts

Here Comes the Sun

Solar power is a big component in the country’s energy independence strategy. Right now, we depend on foreign energy sources for about 2/3 of our energy needs. Energy independence is America’s attempt to produce our own energy sources, thus making us less reliant on other countries and the vagaries of the geopolitical landscape.

Solar power’s been around since the early 1800’s, but it took a lot of work before it became practical.

Photovoltaics

In 1839, Alexander Edmond Bequerel discovered the photovoltaic effect. He was 19 and messing around in his father’s lab. He found that if you put silver chloride in an acidic solution and stick platinum electrodes in it, you get a current when you shine light on the solution. Like early batteries, this wasn’t a very practical device. It was liquid, needed expensive metals and corrosive materials. But this is where the word ‘photovoltaic’ comes from: photo meaning ‘light’ and voltaic meaning ‘voltage’. Photovoltaics convert light to electricity.

In 1876, William Grylis Adams (The guy whose picture is at right) discovered that an electrical current could be created in the solid element selenium, just by shining a light on it. The problem was that you need a lot of light and got out very little electricity. But it was a first proof-of-concept that you could generate energy without moving points or heat. (Side note: Alexander Graham Bell used selenium to transmit sound through a beam of light in 1880.

Scientists had a tough time figuring out how to harness this phenomenon for a long time. They did a lot of experiments with light and various metals, because metals are the best conductors; however, the results were confusing and led to different theories about what was happening.

In 1905, when Albert Einstein published a groundbreaking paper that proposed light could not only be viewed as a wave, but also as a particle, which was called a photon. Looking at light this way helped make sense of the various experiments and scientists finally figured the mechanism behind the photovoltaic effect. One of the things they figured out was that metals weren’t the best materials for generating electricity from light: Semiconductors were.

Semiconductors are materials that are in-between metals and insulators, but rather somewhere in between). Silicon is probably the most-familiar semiconductor, but look back at the second paragraph of this section. Selenium is a semiconductor.

It took a lot of efforts for us to figure out how to make the right kinds of semiconductors. At first, we thought we wanted pure materials, but we eventually figured out that semiconductors worked better when they had controlled impurities. Semiconductor technology ramped up in the pre-WWII years.

In 1954, Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson developed the silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs in New Jersey. This was the first solar cell capable of converting the Sun’s energy into useful power. The efficiency rate of those cells — the ratio of how much of the solar energy actually came out in the form of electricity — was a whopping 4%.

For a long time, the low efficiency of photovoltaics limited the feasibility of using solar energy. But that’s changing very rapidly.

OK, I know this is a horrible graph for a normal person. It was made for scientists in an attempt to put everything in one graph — which leads to a messy graph. But here’s what you should get out of it.

  • There are a lot of different types of photovoltaics being developed
  • The efficiency of photovoltaics in general has increased significantly over the last 20 years.
  • Things we knew about in the 1970s have been made much more efficient
  • New technologies are being developed. Look at the solid red dots in the lower right-hand corner. Sure, the efficiencies are low now, but look how fast they’re improving.

These are research photovoltaics. In the real world, the efficiency is a little lower.

 

But while the efficiency has been slowly increasing, the cost has been going down – a lot.

This set the stage for making photovoltaics a feasible alternative for large facilities — like racetracks — to use solar to save money.

Sports Facilities and Solar

In 2007, Coors Field was the first pro sports facility to install a solar power system. The 9.89 kilowatt system was used to power the LED Rockpile scoreboard. AT&T Park followed in 2008. As of 2015, there were 37 US sports professional sports facilities with some of their power needs being met by solar energy. Here’s a partial list from 2015 and the wattage of each solar installation.

What’s a Watt?

Power is how much energy is used (or produced) over time. It is usually measured in Watts, but us car people are sort of partial to horsepower. To set the scale:

  • A human being using a hand crank machine to produce energy can produce about 8W
  • A kilowatt is about 1.34 horsepower. An 800-hp racecar engine is about 597 kilowatts.
  • Power plants are measured in millions of Watts, or megawatts (MW)

To give you an idea of the impact, the SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association) says that energy produced by the solar power installations at professional sports facilities offsets nearly 22,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide — which is the equivalent of planting a half-million trees or taking 5,000 cars off the road.

Out of the top three solar installations at professional sports facilities (in terms of power generation capacity), two of them are racetracks.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Solar Farm

The IMS Solar Farm was installed in 2014. It has 39,312 solar modules that produce 9.0 MW of power, which offsets 10,288 tons of carbon annually. It was put on 68 acres of land and that didn’t really have a well-defined purpose and wasn’t producing any revenue.  The panels themselves “only” take 41.5 acres.

Pocono Solar Array

In the 2000’s, the annual electricity bill for Pocono Raceway was a quarter of a million dollars. In 2011, Pennsylvania decided to deregulate the electric industry, which meant that electricity costs for the track could soar, potentially doubling the bill. It’s hard making money at a racetrack. Try doing it when you have a half-million dollar a year electric bill.

Solar energy made sense for the track. It’s a really big upfront investment ($15-$17M), but the solar panels will last for 40 years and the track expected the solar farm to pay for itself in 4-5 years.

Construction started in May 2010 and the array came on line three months later. Nearly 40,000 (39,960, to be precise) American made photovoltaic modules (of the thin-film variety) cover 25 acres that used to be a parking lot and have a capacity of 3MW. (Interesting note. Compare the number of solar panels at Pocono with the number at Indy. It’s about the same, but the Indy farm produces three times as much power — that tells you something about how the efficiency of solar power has increased over ten years.

As of 9:35 am today:

  • The track has produced 26,181,335 kilowatt hours of electricity, which is equivalent to
    • 220,444 propane cylinders
    • 615,724 gallons of gasoline
  • The CO2 offset is equivalent to planting 136,827 trees

As of the 2017 report, the farm’s production offsets 16,687 metric tons of carbon dioxide (which is equivalent to the emissions from 3563 cars.) Having the farm reduces carbon emissions by an estimated 2,370 tons annually.

Here’s what’s really impressive, though. Pocono Raceway is able to run 100% of the facility with the power produced by the solar farm, PLUS offset all the additional power needs required by NASCAR during an event. This isn’t the case at any other facility, as far as I can tell.

Here’s my favorite part. The solar farm has grass. Grass is not good for the environment. Think of how much energy is used to maintain grass. Well, Pocono has an answer for that.

 

Yep. During the summer months, the Raceway employee list increases by about 50, as they bring sheep on-sit to eat the grass. Now, of course, you have to worry about methane emissions from the sheet (read: burps and farts), but that’s less carbon than you’re going to get than you would from a tractor or mower.

Why Don’t All Tracks Set Up Solar Farms?

The reason you’re seeing solar farms is because it makes financial sense. No one running a business is going to spend money they don’t have to spend. One this I was curious about was that the two biggest projects were in states I don’t normally associate with a lot of sun. The SEIA has an interactive map that shows major solar installations.

So there are a lot more projects in the West and SouthWest, as you might expect. But that doesn’t mean it’s not feasible for the rest of us. Well, except for the poor folks in International Falls, MN, perhaps.

But That’s Not All Pocono Raceway is Doing

This went long, so I’ll just make a few notes about what else Pocono is doing. You can read more in their report.

  • Pocono has a 75% waste diversion goal by 2018, which means that 75% of the waste generated at the track doesn’t go to landfills.
    • A 100% waste diversion goal by 2018 for its skyboxes
  • A partnership with Penn State, Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola to recycle aluminum cans and PET bottles (They recovered 13.29 tons of this during 2016)
  • A composting program:
    • In June 2016, 370 pounds of compostable food waste was recovered. (Note this is a tough one. A lot of NASCAR foods aren’t really compostable.)
    • Using compostable cups and utensils
  • Food donations: In June 2016, they donated 1,000 pounds of food to local organizations, thus keeping it out of the landfills.
  • Safety-Kleen has an ongoing program to recycle oils, automotive fluids and oil-based waste at tracks and race shops. They do this at all tracks, but in 2016 at Pocono, they recycled and/or repurposed
    • 1040 gallons of waste oil
    • 270 pounds of absorbent (kitty litter!)
    • 150 pounds of used oil filters
    • 400 pounds of other solids
    • 165 gallons (1370lbs) of aqueous cleaning solutions
    • 34 gallons of degreaser
  • The efforts aren’t just during race weekends. The staff is diligent about office recycling as well!

I have to say that I’m not easily impressed, but this report really impressed me. I’m always skeptical of people who trumpet their ‘greenness’, because there are a lot of people who exaggerate the impact of what they’re doing. Not Pocono.

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