Patrons pushing through turnstiles and locking into seats on the Kingda Ka rollercoaster are preparing for a ride that takes them up a record-breaking 456-ft hill at nearly 130 mph. Although the sun might not cross their minds on their breakneck climb, it is responsible for powering this and the rest of the attractions at Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari in Jackson Township, New Jersey.
KDC Solar developed the 23.5-MW array at Six Flags Great Adventure, which is the largest net-metered solar project in New Jersey. The system is composed of traditional ground mounts installed on 40 acres of cleared forest and solar carports in three parking lots. It was installed over a 16-month period by The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company and began operating in June 2019.
This project is part of a comprehensive, company-wide sustainability plan for Six Flags. The company has also implemented a recycling program and nixed paper towels in favor of air dryers in bathrooms.
“I think it’s a classic example of an amusement park really becoming green from a sustainability point of view, recycling point of view and now energy point of view,” said Alan Epstein, president and CEO of KDC Solar, the system’s owner and operator.
Six Flags Great Adventure is an economic force for a community that doesn’t have much of a commercial presence. Jackson Township has a population of about 55,000, and at the height of summer, Great Adventure employs upward of 4,000 people, making it the largest employer in the community by a wide margin.
“We rely on all the cities that surround us for staffing,” said John Winkler, president of Six Flags Great Adventure. “They have some great attributes, but they’re pretty much a residential community. We are a big business sitting in the middle of a residence.”
Every ride at Six Flags Great Adventure has its own electrical meter, and due to the park’s total electricity consumption, KDC had to install a substation separate from the local utility that feeds excess electricity to homes in the vicinity.
“Because of the existing electrical infrastructure, it was quite challenging,” Epstein said. “We wound up putting in a new substation, which is highly unusual. So the Greater Jackson area got an increased capacity by virtue of this facility for free.”
The solar system was designed to account for 97% of the park’s electricity production. It’s connected to Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L)’s grid and net meters any extra energy.
In its first month of operation, the system produced 150% of the power needed at Great Adventure, but that percentage is expected to fluctuate in the coming months.
“We’re hesitant to celebrate ahead, but what we do know is that it is extraordinary, and we’re thrilled,” Winkler said.
The ground-mount array uses CSUN 345-W PV modules with SMA 2200 central inverters and is mounted and framed with GameChange’s MaxSpan Post Driven System. The parking lot canopies are SunPower long-span carports with SunPower 460- and 470-W modules and SMA 50-kW Core1 string inverters.
Great Adventure is open to the public from March to December. During the colder off-months, the solar system will power administrative facilities and ride upkeep. The park is unique for a Six Flags location, since it has a standalone water park and a safari attraction — home to 1,200 animals — in addition to its 57 rides.
“I think it’s fair to say this is the largest solar energy-supplied park in the United States in terms of percentage of solar, and it fits directly with Six Flags’ sustainability program,” Epstein said.
Permitting and lawsuits
Unlike the quick 28-second trip of the Kingda Ka roller coaster, the journey to complete this project was years in the making.
Six Flags executives started meeting with solar companies 10 years ago to develop an array that could meet the park’s energy goals, but it wasn’t until KDC approached them that they moved forward with constructing a solar system.
“Everyone talks about being able to do it, but they had no history or no proof that they’ve ever done it before,” Winkler said. “We try not to be the trial for any type of project prototypes. We like proven things. [KDC was] the only one that had active projects and they could prove to us that they could do a large-scale buildout.”
Even having installed solar in the state, KDC hadn’t done a project of this scale, let alone a net-metered one. The company specializes in solar projects averaging 5 MW of output.
With individual meters on every ride, KDC had to petition the Board of Public Utilities for each to be configured for net metering, which took a year. New Jersey law states all electric utility companies must offer net metering in any sector, requiring the system’s generating capacity to not surpass the customer’s annual electricity needs.
New Jersey removed a cap preventing systems higher than 2 MW from enrolling in net metering in 2010, making the Six Flags system eligible.
The next step was getting JCP&L to sign off on the net-metering and interconnection application. That took another year.
“In our experience, having built over 100 MW of commercial and industrial projects, construction is not the problem. It’s permitting that generally is the difficult part of the process,” Epstein said.
When the permitting was approved, KDC was nearing time for construction, originally planning to have the entire solar system installed as ground mounts on a 90-acre plot in the wooded portion of Six Flags’ 2,200-acre property. Then, several local environmental groups caught wind of the project’s plan to clear cut that much forest for the solar system. In 2015, those environmental activists sued KDC, Six Flags Theme Parks and Jackson Township Council and Planning Board on the grounds that razing the trees would negatively impact that ecosystem, which is home to an endangered species of box turtle.
Litigation lasted two years, and the environmental groups suggested half the solar system be installed on parking lots. Eventually, both parties settled on these terms and KDC also agreed to install snake habitats in the wooded portion of the property.
“It just represents, from our point of view, that if you have a good project, and it makes perfect sense, you need to persevere,” Epstein said. “It was worth taking the time and spending the money to get it done, because at the end of the day, it’s being celebrated by everybody, including the environmentalists.”
After nearly a decade from initial talks to turning the array on, Six Flags is hoping to replicate this system in other locations across the United States.
“I challenged the entire [amusement park] industry at the ribbon-cutting to look at [solar],” Winkler said. “I know that every city and region and county and state — they all have different rules, and so solar companies are really challenged. There’s going to have to be a general understanding of its value before people will start really allowing it and getting rid of the barriers that they put up.”