It’s Not a Mirage – It’s a Solar Project at an Airport06.02.2010 | HMMH |
by Steve Barrett
A little less than a year ago, I joined the HMMH team to provide clean energy services to existing clients and expand services in new areas. Given HMMH’s long-standing and strong relationships in the aviation community, a key element of the plan was finding a way to marry aviation and energy; we thought the best prospects were in solar. With solar technology expanding in markets throughout the world and public policy incentives increasing under the Obama Administration combined with Airports’ perfect blend of high electricity consumption and unobstructed southern exposures for capturing sunlight, our thinking seemed cogent. But other than some knowledge of what Denver had done at the Airport’s entrance road at the Democratic Convention in 2008, we weren’t sure if we were seeing a clear future for solar at airports or just a mirage in the distance.
Now I am working with the FAA to write a Solar Guidance Document for Airports that, in part, reviews existing solar projects and provides lessons learned on what has made these projects successful and how they might be replicated by others. Phil DeVita and I have had the opportunity to meet with five airports (with a sixth coming up) to touch the panels, hear them rotate, and meet the people who championed the projects and continue monitoring their progress. We have collected information on siting decisions, economics, regulatory process, and operational experience. We have gathered data to dispel myths and identified steps that were critical to success. The paths taken have not been the same, but the results have been. All projects have been an unequivocal success for the Airports providing cost-effective electricity and positive community relations while remaining compatible with the Airports fundamental mission. Here is a bit of what I saw (and heard).
Denver is the leader of the solar-airport movement with two projects built and operating, and a third under development. Denver has all of the elements that make solar a “no-brainer”: cheap land, state solar incentives, a strong political commitment from the City, and lots of sun. Each project has delivered cheaper and cheaper electricity while giving the airport deserved recognition as a leader in the field. There is no reason Denver won’t continue to build solar projects over the next 10 years. And despite the installation of almost 17,000 solar panels on airport property, there have been no complaints about glare.
The City of Albuquerque sits in the gold zone for solar energy and has taken a leadership position in the Southwest, including the installation of panels at the Airport. Its first project, located on an existing car parking structure, is relatively small but it has recently received partial funding from the FAA to expand that system four-fold. This project will put more panels on four more structures. Without the land Denver has, the near-term goal at Albuquerque will be to fill up the remaining seven parking structures and generate a substantial amount of on-site electricity from the sun.
The Golden State has been the hub of the US solar industry and many of the major airports have seized the opportunity of sun and state incentives to build projects.
San Francisco International responded to a request sent out by the City to host solar panels. It would be a good deal for the host – receive solar electricity for the cost of the typical customer rate paid for other electricity sources. SFO had a new terminal with a flat roof-top tailored made for solar. The location, being highly visible from the terminal train, also would demonstrate the Airport and City’s commitment to an alternative energy future. With that project constructed in 2007, the City utility now wants to build a second project on the rental car parking facility and the initial design is underway with construction planned for the fall.
Anthony Kekeluwela, a veteran engineer with the Port of Oakland, started talking about a solar facility for the airport in 2005. His approach was a bit different from the others – why not build solar along the Airports runways in lands that can’t be used for other purposes. The logic made sense – solar is physically low in profile and can be placed close to Part 77 imaginary surfaces without physically impeding airspace. He worked with a solar developer who leased the land, built the project, and sells electricity to the Airport. Today it operates with minimal maintenance and maximum benefit. And is a working example of a solar system built near a runway causing no impacts.
Fresno’s success story is just as remarkable. It decided that the Runway Approach Zone, a large area subject to high noise levels from arriving and departing aircraft, was the perfect location for a large solar array. Because no human occupied land uses could occur in the runway approach zone, airport personnel decided that solar panels would go there. Fresno worked with the FAA to get the project approved. Nearly two years after its construction, there have been zero complaints about its placement and Fresno would like to construct a second project. By the way, the solar facility provides approximately 60% of the annual electricity demand of the airport.
While not all of these projects have been simple, the economic and public relations payback have been substantial. And all of the airports that we spoke with said they would build another project if they could line up the same economic deal. Because energy is a secondary purpose, most have not put the time in to construct a follow-on project. Having this group of projects built and operating, does demonstrate solar at airports is more than a mirage – its good business.