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An exciting ride for solar power in California

Theme park company Six Flags Entertainment has installed a new 12.4-MW solar carport system at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles, a project that ranks as the largest single-site commercial renewable energy project in California.

By Robin Brunet

The razzle-dazzle of theme parks tends to obscure the fact that they consume a considerable amount of power when in full swing, and even a roller coaster takes a lot of energy to operate. So it’s understandable why Six Flags Entertainment Corporation has for several years invested in renewable energy, with the new 12.37-megawatt solar carport and energy storage system at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles being the latest example.

Six Flags is the world’s largest regional theme park company and largest operator of water parks in North America, and it partnered with Solar Optimum and DSD Renewables (DSD) for the Magic Mountain conversion, which ranks as the largest single-site commercial renewable energy project in California, and is said to be the largest solar project allocated toward a for-profit organization in the U.S.

When completed, the 637,000 square foot solar network will produce 20.8 million kilowatt hours of energy annually, the equivalent to the electricity consumption of 2,874 homes and enabling the park to offset 100 percent of its energy consumption. It will also offset greenhouse gas emissions yearly, comparable to 34,194 barrels of oil consumed or 5,110 tons of waste recycled rather than landfilled. Moreover, the yearly carbon dioxide offset will be comparable to taking 3,182 cars off the road.

The benefits of the project even include creature comfort, since the added shade coverage of the carports will keep cars cool for guests and park employees (additionally, 30 electric vehicle charging stations will be created).

Jason Freeman, Six Flags Vice-President of Operations, Public Safety, Engineering and Maintenance, points out that Magic Mountain is the company’s third solar project, after Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom near San Francisco.

“Magic Mountain is the largest park in our chain and consumes the most power, and since our current CEO Selim Bassoul is very focused on achieving a sustainable footprint, we’re also analysing the feasibility of solar in three other parks within the U.S.”

The push is understandable considering Six Flags’ parks—and theme parks in general—have something that solar carport projects require in order to be commercially viable: plenty of space. “Our parking facility at Magic Mountain is huge and can accommodate up to 50,000 visitors daily at peak season,” Freeman says. Specifically, it consists of an estimated 3,544 guest spaces and 771 spaces for employees.

 
  

Kyle Goehring, Vice-President, head of sustainability at Turner & Townsend and who acted as lead agent to facilitate Six Flag’s solar ambitions, adds: “Our job is to evaluate all of Six Flags’ sites and determine if solar makes sense financially for each site, how difficult it will be to obtain permits, and how easily solar will interconnect to the existing electrical infrastructure. We also see what we can do to aggregate some sites in order to achieve economies of scale.”

Goehring says of the previous Six Flags solar ventures: “New Jersey was a ground mounted solar project but Discovery Kingdom is a grid connected 7.5 MW carport system.”

Unlike traditional rooftop solar installations, solar carport structures use a ground-mounted model relying on tilted panels, the difference being that the panels are installed higher off the ground to provide enough clearance for parked vehicles.

Goehring says, “There’s no getting around the crucial need for huge parking areas to make carport solar an efficient energy generator for theme parks, especially in California with some of the most expensive utility rates in the country.”

Goehring describes the regulatory environment for the Magic Mountain project as “very much in our favour,” but the planned energy output was so large that Southern California Edison undertook a two-year study of the interconnectivity specifics. “We also worked with fire and other services during that time to meet all standards and expectations,” he says.

In total, planning and permitting took almost six years before construction began.

Early on, Solar Optimum was retained as the construction partner and DSD as the financier; the former, based in Glendale, had built strong relationships with county officials and facilitated the permitting process, and contracts were ultimately signed in early 2023.

Originally, battery storage wasn’t considered for Magic Mountain, “but we studied the economics and realized it made sense, especially since over our long development period utility rates increased, while systems costs decreased,” says Freeman.

 
 Six Flags Entertainment is the world’s largest regional theme park company and largest operator of water parks in North America, and it partnered with Solar Optimum and DSD Renewables for the Magic Mountain solar project. When completed, the 637,000 square foot solar network will produce 20.8 million kilowatt hours of energy annually
  

Solar Optimum’s experience in battery storage has demonstrated that a combined solar/storage project typically realizes an additional 30 to 50 percent greater overall cost reduction, due to the demand side savings storage can provide.

Solar battery storage systems can also be configured to provide emergency backup power for critical loads.

For Magic Mountain, two Tesla MegaPacks offering 7.8 MWhs of energy storage were selected, with each battery module paired with its own inverter for improved efficiency and increased safety. This technology increased the overall cost of the system but enhanced the already robust savings offered to Six Flags under a Power Purchase Agreement structure.

Magic Mountain would ultimately require 23,000 solar panels, and the project team selected the Panther Series of panels manufactured by France-based RECOM, primarily for reliability (the company is the only Bloomberg Tier 1 PV module manufacturer in Europe with above 3.2 GW annual production capacity and sales in over 110 countries). The Panther Series features mono crystalline half-cut bifacial modules, with shingled technology that eliminates traditional ribbon connections (by eliminating the soldered ribbons, the active area of the module is improved and thermal stresses are reduced, resulting in exceptional efficiency and reliability).      

The panels were augmented by three-phase string inverters from Chint Power Systems (CPS) America, which are designed specifically for North American rooftop and carport applications and grid. “We were fortunate enough to have escaped the worst of the supply chain issues stemming from the COVID lockdowns,” Goehring says. “Solar Optimum was a very agile partner, and the assets were readily available to us thanks to DSD Renewables, which has extensive experience with solar canopies and carports.”

 
The enormous size of the Magic Mountain parking area required work to be broken into four phases, carefully aligned with Six Flags’ operational schedule. Construction was some days on, some days off depending on the volume of guests to the park—strict security in the form of gates and other measures were undertaken on the site. 
  

About 80 percent of the Magic Mountain parking lot would ultimately be covered, and the project team determined which areas would be the optimum location for the solar installations. “Once identified, we marked the ground for foundation work and electrical runs, and we also took soil samples to ensure the steel beams of the canopies would be well supported,” Goehring says. “From there, we drilled for the foundations, the steel was shipped in, and the footings were poured. Then the foundations were constructed, followed by the racking.”

While Goehring’s explanation of the construction sounds straightforward, the enormous size of the parking area required work to be broken into four phases, carefully aligned with Six Flags’ operational schedule. “Construction was some days on, some days off depending on the volume of guests to the park,” Freeman says, adding that strict security in the form of gates and other measures were undertaken. “We also had to coordinate with fire and safety services to keep routes open for ambulances and other vehicles.”

As of February, the second phase of construction was underway but the final phases are expected to proceed quickly—although no timelines for the project’s completion have been formally announced other than the expectation it will be finished later this year. “The Magic Mountain solar network will ultimately produce 517.89 million kilowatt hours of energy in a 25-year period, which offsets greenhouse gas energy consumption equivalent to 911 million miles driven by gas-powered cars,” Freeman says.

Alexandria French, a manager with communications and advertising at Six Flags Magic Mountain, has told media that she hopes the magnitude of the solar project will inspire other business owners: “If we’re able to put this project together and say ‘We’ve done it, now let us help you do it,’ all we’re doing is paving that ground for the next company to take the next steps into bettering the 
 environment and moving forward with what we know is going to be a very interesting future.”

Indeed, a study authored by Kieren Rudge for the Yale School of the Environment found that more
 solar carports could also make the U.S. grid more reliable when under stress; Rudge theorized that since projects such as Six Flags and others are occurring in different pockets throughout a city or state, this benefits grid resistance “during extreme weather events as opposed to if all the energy is coming out of one very centralized location.”

Goehring agrees. “Solar carports have a lot of potential because they’re free-standing structures that don’t require additional land,” he says.

However, he stresses that early engagement is crucial: “A successful project depends on buy-in from the on-site park management team, local utility and community. They need to be involved as early as possible.”