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Volume 14,Issue 3 Autumn 2012

Locating Solar Electric Facilities at Airports:The American Experience


The characteristics of airports make them very good places to construct solar electric generation facilities. They have flat, wide open spaces where sunlight is not obstructed. They include electric consuming activities and buildings, like terminals, that avoid the need for lengthy transmission components. They also have building and ground surfaces that can be readily prepared to host a solar electric generation facility. Notwithstanding these characteristics, why would an airport have an interest in promoting solar electricity development on its property?
Most importantly, airports should consider solar because it can be profitable to do so. Advances in solar photovoltaic technology development have maximized efficiency of electricity production from solar panels. Increased manufacturing levels worldwide have led to a decrease in capital costs of solar products. These two factors have made solar electricity production more competitive with traditional electric generating sources, like coal and oil fired plants. For airports, solar panels can be located on rooftops or near runways that are not suitable for any other types of uses. These areas are underutilized; placing solar panels on then increases their value. Airports should also consider solar because it supports government policies that encourage clean, locally produced energy. Governments worldwide have recognized the need to expand electricity generation opportunities and tap into local renewable energy sources as a matter of national self-interest. Doing so can help nations consolidate their fuel source needs at home and avoid exposure to unpredictable fuel supplies and costs from abroad. Clean energies like solar can also contribute to government mandated renewable energy production standards. Airports are a logical location to invest in renewable energy development due to their suitable site characteristics, long-term mission, and fixed location. In the US, a number of large and medium sized airports have constructed solar electric generation projects, including in San Francisco, California, Denver Colorado, and Albuquerque New Mexico. These airports have capitalized on strong solar resources and a committed government interest in completing solar construction. Solar projects at small General Aviation (GA) airports have not occurred in the US to date due to the lack of onsite electricity demand and insufficient public policy measures to support remote generation. However, recent policy changes in some states enacted to encourage large gridconnected solar projects will make GA airports ideal locations for future projects. With their wide open spaces that have limited development potential due to their proximity to aircraft, GA airports, from a simple physical perspective, are highly suitable for the construction of large-scale solar. Despite the successes identified above, airport managers in the US have struggled to understand the solar electricity generation opportunity. Airport personnel understand aviation; energy personnel understand solar. Professional consultants and planners who have experience in both fields can be very effective in bringing the two disciplines together. Most importantly, the consultant can work in the airport’s best interest to provide it with an independent analysis to determine if solar makes good business sense given the particular location of the facility. The consultant can also manage the project to ensure that it is designed and constructed properly. As Airports look for ways to expand their profitability and compete more effectively in a challenging worldwide air transportation market, solar electricity generation can provide monetary value from otherwise underutilized property while meeting important government policy objectives. About the author: Mr. Stephen Barrett has 20 years of experience environmental and regulatory consulting and project management. Most recently, Mr. Barrett has been active in renewable and sustainable initiatives, including in the siting, design and financial analyses of wind and solar projects, sustainability planning, and the permitting of energy, infrastructure, and real estate projects. Mr. Barrett is currently supporting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the development of a guidance document for solar projects at US airports. About HMMH: Harris Miller Miller & Hanson Inc. (HMMH) was founded in 1981 to provide the highest quality noise consulting services to airports. Today, HMMH is an international leader in environmental noise and vibration control, air quality analysis, airport and airspace planning, and climate and energy solutions. HMMH provides assistance to airports interested in solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation.

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