Airports & the environment: Solar power begins generating stellar savings. Part 1 - 100 airports act
Airports of all sizes are becoming increasingly environmentally aware. Apart from issues of noise and emissions – those that produce the greatest number of complaints – the proactive use of solar power is gaining in popularity as an environmental measure that not only saves money, but can actually generate additional cash. At the same time the installation helps underscore the airport’s ‘green’ credentials in an obviously visible manner via the arrays of gleaming solar panels.
However, as always, there are pitfalls to be wary of.
Part 1 of this report looks at what little regulation there is, at which organisation is promoting solar power to airports, at the actual science and the pricing, and it examines installation examples from around the world.
One of the main stated goals of Airports Council International (ACI) is “(the adoption of) environmental initiatives to promote aviation and airport sustainable developments, limiting or reducing environmental impacts while supporting economic and social benefits, i.e. the key to community permission to operate and grow at both global and local levels.”
Environmentalism has become such a feature of the airport landscape that it is hard now to imagine that as little as two decades ago it was no more than an afterthought for all but the most ‘progressive’ airports, and often rolled up into an obscure department, together with other disciplines.
The notion of an executive board seat for a "Director of Environment" would typically have been considered unjustifiable apart from at airports where there were severe noise issues. Times have changed dramatically, and one of the fastest growing aspects of environmental planning at airports now comes in the form of the opportunity to build solar panel farms, which can be used to power the airport itself and even as an unconventional auxiliary revenue source through the onsale of solar power.
In order to put solar power into context in the airport sector we should look first at how attitudes are changing (or not) among the people charged with directing the future of the industry.
“Improving the environmental performance of aviation is a challenge ICAO takes very seriously. In fulfilling its responsibilities, the Organisation developed a range of standards, policies and guidance material for the application of integrated measures to address aircraft noise and engine emissions embracing technological improvements, operating procedures, proper organisation of air traffic, appropriate airport and land-use planning, and the use of market-based options. All of this has contributed to aircraft operations that today can be 70% more efficient than in the 1970s.” …
“In 2004, ICAO adopted three major environmental goals, to:
- limit or reduce the number of people affected by significant aircraft noise;
- limit or reduce the impact of aviation emissions on local air quality; and
- limit or reduce the impact of aviation greenhouse gas emissions on the global climate.”
However, it then goes on to say:
“ICAO's activities in the environment field are primarily focused on those problems that benefit most from a common co-ordinated approach, on a worldwide basis, namely aircraft noise and the impact of aircraft engine emissions.”
This suggests that other key steams of environmental action at airports are not high on the agenda for the world’s foremost aviation regulatory body.
ACI, just across the road from ICAO in Montreal, published its briefing (positioning) document ‘Airports & the Environment’ in 2010, declaring that “Environmental stewardship at airports is becoming as important as safety and security” (which is quite a claim), and it identified, inter alia, the following subject areas:
- Sustainability (a catch-all umbrella term);
- Aircraft Noise;
- Climate Change & Greenhouse Gas Management;
- Resource Use & Waste Management;
- Water Use;
- Storm Water & Waste Water;
- Local Air Quality;
- De- & Anti-icing Fluids;
- Soil & Land Management;
- Solid Waste;
- Environmental Management Systems.
Even then, the provision of solar energy systems was not allocated a category of its own. Nor was it mentioned under the Climate Change category as an alternative to other power sources; nor did it get a mention in a separate briefing document focussed specifically on climate change.
ACI has confirmed (as this report is published) that there is no specific documentation on solar power at airports.
Nor does ACI Europe have a written position on this matter, but it does point out that within its Airport Carbon Accreditation scheme it has highlighted how the generation of power from solar energy has become one of those important and relevant technologies helping some airports to become more energy independent, and to lower their carbon emissions in the process.
Interestingly, the creation of solar power by the deployment of panels and panel farms on anything from a spare rooftop to hectares of unused land, taken collectively, may have come about as a result of the ‘market forces’ that ICAO refers to on its website rather than from regulatory or representative authorities, and is one of the more notable advances in airport environmental measures,.
There is an expectation that IATA would take a stance on the topic, for two reasons.
Firstly because solar power can be obtained from devices fitted on airline buildings such as hangars.
Secondly, because of the potential distraction to pilots or ATC staff from the glare emanating from solar panels. These issues are discussed in this report.
Again IATA does not take an identifiable position on solar power in general. Through the global industry-wide not-for-profit organisation the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) including its members such as aircraft and engine manufacturers, individual airports and airlines, industry suppliers and other industry organisations like CANSO (air navigation), IATA and ACI have collaborated to formulate a co-ordinated single voice approach.
The Swiss based ATAG recently released a report, "Aviation Climate Solutions", promoting the aviation sector’s sustainable development planning and its programme of energy efficiency, to reduce its climate impact.
This CAPA report draws on some of its findings.
Over 100 airports have invested in solar power, but limited to geographical groupings
One of the key findings from airline and aircraft manufacturing-oriented sectors that are also benefiting from solar power is that more than 100 airports worldwide have invested in supplying a portion of their energy needs in this way (up to 100% in one notable case, in fact).
Collectively they generate over 400 megawatts of energy.
Airports that have invested in solar power
The distribution of solar arrays at airports:
It is immediately evident from this map that the conversion to solar energy is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, and most notably in North America, followed by Europe. There is only one installation in the whole of South America (Montevideo, Uruguay), and only one in the mainland African continent (Lilongwe, Malawi).
That state of affairs is a manifest waste of a natural resource – the sun – energy that occurs in abundance on these continents and in these regions, and especially in Africa. Fast-growing Africa is still playing catch-up with the rest of the world, and resources still need to be focused on more pressing issues such as new terminals and runways. Investing in solar panels requires a strict cost-benefit analysis of the anticipated return and its timescale. There will also be delivery and installation issues, possibly maintenance ones as well. One might presume that supporting organisations such as ACI will be looking to focus their attention on Africa to try to improve take-up.
It is not so clear why the take-up has been so poor in Latin America, in the Middle East or for that matter in Southeast Asian countries that lie along, or close to, the equator. The two countries that stand out as leaders in the Asia-Pacific region are India and Australia; quite different ones, but united by their exposure to the power of the sun.
ACS – a global view of solar energy for airports
ATAG’s recent publication, Aviation Climate Solutions (ACS), is a comprehensive document covering many disciplines, and some of the key findings from it that are appropriate to the airport sector are treated here, with commentary.
The report points out that airports are the perfect location for solar electricity generating installations as the large flat surfaces both on the ground and on top of buildings (terminal, administrative, hangar, etc) allow for significantly sized solar installations to be built. It is also the case that municipalities, where they own the airport – and the majority of airport ownership still rests within the public sector - will find airport deployment particularly attractive as the city can start to take advantage of previously unused productive space and generate energy for itself. Not every airport can have a thriving ‘airport city’ on its spare land and this is the next-best alternative.
There are possibly as yet unimagined innovations arising from the use of solar power, for example: the report says that Fraport is deploying a solar-driven passenger stairway.
Domestic or commercial deployment of panels – the only difference is size and scope
The logistical deployment of solar panels in a commercial setting is really no different from a domestic one, except in terms of size and scope. Just as in the domestic setting, when a single panel or two is not enough and the panels can be arranged to form a solar array, also size matters in the commercial scenario.
Groups of solar panels are connected in a parallel fashion to maximise current, thereby increasing wattage. The total wattage depends upon the materials, the size of the cell, the number of cells in each panel and the number of panels in the array. Some of the largest industrial installations, for example in Nevada, USA, now run to several square miles in size, although so far few in the airport sector are anything like that size.
A physical and chemical process that is ‘sustainable’
Regarding the actual power generation, solar electric systems convert light (solar energy) into direct current electricity by the ‘Photovoltaic Method’ (PV), using semiconducting materials which produce the photovoltaic effect. The process is a proven and long-standing sustainable technology, drawing on the most plentiful and widely distributed renewable energy source – the sun. The direct conversion of sunlight to electricity occurs without any moving parts or environmental emissions.
Photovoltaic systems have now been used for 50 years in specialised applications, and grid-connected PV systems have been in use for over two decades. They were first mass-produced in the year 2000, when German environmentalists obtained government support for the ‘100,000 roofs’ programme, a solar power initiative which achieved 87% of its targeted energy output.
'The Price is Right' - the cost of conversion to solar energy
The cost of a solar panel is determined in part by the size (in Watts), the physical size, the brand, quality of materials, the durability/longevity (or warranty period) and any certifications the solar panel might have.
As is often the case it is not necessarily true that the most expensive is the best. The cost has greatly reduced in recent years thanks mainly to government incentive schemes and a big increase in the number of panels manufactured in China.
Prices of solar panels have been falling by up to 50% a year, though the price can vary considerably from country to country, influenced by production costs and government attitudes to the value of the technology. Broadly speaking if a government is convinced of its value then subsidies will be forthcoming and not only for residential installations. The more modules in the system, the less cost per unit, generally speaking.
It is a very fluid situation. Take the UK, for example, where in 2015 the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) decreed that commercial and industrial rooftop solar systems over 50kWp would no longer require planning permission. At the same time the subsidy system by which installers are paid by the government was reduced, there being questions over the duration of that deal in the context of solar energy’s march towards parity with fossil fuels.
Indeed the government intends to cut the 'Feed-in Tariff' (FIT) as the subsidy is known, by up to 90% in Jan-2016. Under the proposals FIT payments to roof mounted solar schemes will be reduced from 12.47p (GBP0.125) for every KWh of electricity they produce, to 1.63p (GBP0.016). This affects community and commercial projects as much as domestic installations.
The price of solar energy in the UK in mid-2015 was roughly GBP80/MWh (megawatt hour) and falling fast, but fossil fuels still sell to the grid more cheaply at GBP50/MWh. More worrying is Government rhetoric on the burden of renewable energy to bill payers. Prime Minister Cameron once infamously referred to the levies as “green crap.”
A common small residential solar array is in the order of 4kw, covering 288 sq ft (26.75 sq m), about the size of a family room, and such an array will produce about 5,200 kilowatt hours per year. To illustrate – one 255-Watt panel can produce the power equivalent to that used to run 84 compact fluorescent light bulbs for one hour a day.
The scaling in a commercial setting, although not the technical principles, is clearly quite different, and assessing the price of an airport installation is like trying to answer the question “how long is a piece of string?”
The price variation between a simple airfield installation of 100MW, which would probably be the minimum requirement for an airport, and an integrated modular design sited on top of a terminal building or multi-storey car park – which would require substantial architectural design, can be considerable.
A ball-park figure for a small residential array of the type mentioned above might be USD2.30 per KWh panel, and cost USD9000. For a simple first phase industrial array up to 100MW, such as installed on an airfield: the price might be USD1.50 to USD2.30 per panel, and in the case of a 200MW installation, reducing to USD1.50 or less. It must be stressed that those figures are approximate, will vary from country to country, and do not take into account the costs associated with more complex installations.
100 airports have moved to solar energy
From those 100 airports that have solar installations, here are some examples from around the world.
Adelaide Airport has begun installing a 4,500 panel, 1.17MW, solar PV system on the roof of its short-term car park, and covering 8000 sq m, bringing its total installed solar capacity to 1.28MW.
It is (currently) the largest array on any Australian airport – a 1MW array was installed at Karratha Airport in Aug-2015. The airport has cut its energy consumption by close to 10%.
The project is expected to be completed by Apr-2016. Adelaide Airport first installed solar panels on the roof of its domestic and international terminal in 2007.
Adelaide Airport solar system installed on the terminal rooftop
Brisbane Airport also purchased Nissan Leaf electric vehicles for staff pool use. The electric charging points for the cars are located at the buildings where the solar panels were installed, to enable them to be directly charged by renewable energy. In the project’s first year the cars travelled more than 10,000 kilometres.
The project additionally encourages behavioural change by promoting car-pooling and a focus on CO2 emissions, while contributing to a reduction in the Brisbane Airport staff’s commuting ‘footprint.’ They also save about three tonnes of CO2 per year from the substitution of solar energy for petrol.
With at least 350 cloudless days a year, and 10 hours of sunshine most days, Alice Springs is a natural choice for solar energy. Alice Springs was the first Australian airport to invest in large scale photovoltaic solar technology, feeding back to its internal electricity grid. The original 235 kW power station was completed in 2010 under stage one, and delivered a quarter of the airport’s power needs.
Alice Springs Airport now generates 50% of its energy needs from solar panels. Stage two of its solar project combines with ‘premium’ parking facilities.
In May 2014 an AUD1.9 million expansion of the solar farm was completed, more than doubling capacity. The latest 325 kW photovoltaic (PV) system involves 996 panels which were installed on top of expansive steel parking structures, serving the dual purpose of mounting the solar panels and providing 98 shaded, premium car spaces.
The additional panels produce enough energy to offset the equivalent of 420 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. In total, the airport is offsetting 890 tonnes of carbon annually using solar energy.
Alice Springs Stage 1 solar project
Alice Springs Stage 2 solar project - premium car park
India has 136 airports, some of which are spread over vast areas of land. For example, Hyderabad Airport is spread over 5400 acres, while the airport at Chennai covers over 4000 acres. Large-scale solar plants are possible on many of these areas. The one at Hyderabad, for instance, could house a 25 MW system.
The Airports Authority of India plans to generate 50 megawatts from solar plants at 30 airports by the end of 2015, enhanced to 150 MW over time. At least eight of India’s airports, including those owned by private companies such as the Indira Gandhi International Airport in the capital, New Delhi, already have solar power systems. At Indira Gandhi these systems are used for aeronautical ground lighting systems installed at the airport’s three runways, taxiways and parking stands. Last year, the airport invested in a 2.14 MW plant.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia has installed the country’s largest solar array. It is estimated the 19 megawatt plant will help save the airport USD750,000 in electricity costs and some 18,000 tonnes of CO2 each year.
At the other end of the scale, in the western Pacific Ocean, Palau’s Roman Tmetuchl International Airport solar installation is the largest to be completed in the island nation. The solar modules are installed on the top of shade structures in the airport car park. Due to the frequent occurrence of typhoons on the island, the back sides of the modules have been reinforced with extra support bars for enhanced wind-pressure resistance. The system is expected to produce an annual power output of 250MWh, off-setting roughly 80 tonnes of CO2 per year.
Off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands Seymour Airport on the island of Baltra is said to be the only airport worldwide exclusively to use wind and solar energy. It opened a new ecological terminal in Mar-2013, with 80% of its buildings constructed using material recycled from the previous airport.
The lessee, Corporación América, holds a 15-year concession to operate the airport, and invested USD26 million in the project. The combined savings come from solar panels and three wind turbines, and there is no glass in the terminal’s window frames, which encourages the through-flow of the wind.
Seymour Airport with wind turbines, solar panels and no glass window panes
Comprising 41,000 solar panels, Indianapolis International Airport’s 12.5 megawatt solar farm covers over 30 hectares of previously unused land and will be used to power the airport’s terminal. I
t is estimated that the array will reduce the airport’s carbon emissions by 10,000 tonnes per year — the equivalent of taking 2,000 cars off the road. Indianapolis currently holds the record for the world’s largest solar plant at an airport.
Denver International Airport’s four solar arrays, installed on the north side of the terminal, now have the capacity to generate 10 megawatts of electricity, enough to power around 2,595 typical Denver-area homes, or cut CO2 emissions by 11,465 tonnes each year. The airport now has a total of 42,358 individual solar panels spread across 55 acres of solar fields, making it the second-largest solar array at any US airport.
Four new solar installations are expected to reduce emissions and produce clean energy at New York Newark Liberty International Airport. With an overall size of 633 kilowatts, the multi-site solar initiative represents the first solar power installations at any airport buildings operated by the New York & New Jersey Port Authority across the region.
The utilisation of solar power at the airport, mainly atop buildings, is anticipated to result in electricity savings of approximately USD60,000 annually. To educate travellers about the benefits of the multi-site solar initiative, the airport plans to install interactive informational kiosks at terminal B, which will provide information about solar power and this initiative. Kiosks will also update visitors on the amount of power that has been generated during a particular day, and during the current month and year.
It is claimed that the new airport in Mexico City, which is already entering the construction phase, will be the world's most sustainable airport when it is completed (Phase 1) in 2018.
It will consist of a single 100m-long terminal capable of handling 120 million annual passengers, and enclosed within a continuous lightweight grid shell.
Artist’s concept of the new Mexico City Airport
The roof enclosure system will incorporate large areas of translucent and opaque panels, daylight reflectors and building-integrated photovoltaic panels aimed at providing shade and thermal insulation. In total, the airport's solar power systems will generate 50 Mw of peak power, enough to supply a large portion of its energy needs.
Installation is often part of a wider strategic ecological plan. The Caribbean island of Aruba’s first solar park is located at the international airport and produces 3.5 megawatts as part of Aruba’s 2020 vision to become 100% independent from fossil fuels.
Athens International Airport’s photovoltaic park produces more than 13 thousand megawatt hours (MWh) of emission-free electricity annually, corresponding to approximately 25% of the airport’s own (MWh) of emission-free electricity annually, corresponding to approximately 25% of the airport’s own electricity needs. This results in an average annual CO2 emissions reduction of 11,500 tonnes and, as a landmark project in Greece, helped spark a photovoltaic revolution in other sectors in the years following its installation.
The solar panels face south and are installed on fixed structures, which are built to withstand strong winds and hail and have a very low reflectivity factor (lower than most objects found at airports, such as parked cars). Industry professionals consider Athens to be the best example of solar power generation at any airport in Europe.
The intensity of reliable year-round sunshine diminishes into Northern and Western Europe, but solar energy is still popular.
London Heathrow Airport’s redeveloped Terminal 2 building is an example of how solar power can be applied even in a climate with low levels of unimpeded sunshine. The airport target for reduction in CO2 emissions is 40% and renewable energy for the building comes from a combined heat and power plant in conjunction with solar panels.
The T2 roof now has 124 integrated and tailor-made solar panels. They were required to suit the building aesthetically, and to be able to deliver a total output of 71kWp (kilowatt-peak). The installation had additionally to meet strict airport security protocols.
Heathrow solar panels
London Southend Airport claims to have installed the UK’s largest solar panel installation as part of its terminal extension. The 496 solar panels supply the terminal's expanded range of shops, cafes and restaurants, via the airport's private electricity network. The system was installed on the terminal's curved tunnel-shaped roofs.
In 2011, Birmingham Airport installed 200 solar panels on the roof of the terminal in order to save 22 tonnes of carbon a year and generate 40,000 kWh a year, sufficient to power 12 average sized homes. This was the first renewable energy and zero carbon installation on the airport site and the first step in a larger project to improve energy management.
Other major installations
CAPA is aware of many examples of installations of solar power units at airports going back over five years, at primary airports like Amsterdam, Dusseldorf and Tokyo Haneda, and secondary airports alike.
Apart from the examples listed above, below is a table of some of the other installations that exist, or have been agreed in 2014/15, among the 100 or so airports that have taken up these systems already.
Many of them are smaller regional airports and many in the US.
The map above makes clear that the majority of this activity is located there.
Burlington International (Vermont)
Installed solar panels in Oct-2014, to save power costs over the next three decades. The panels were installed on top of the parking garage at the airport at a cost of USD1.5 million. The panels, which will generate 500kW of energy, are the first step in Mayor Miro Weinberger's plan to use city-owned property for solar facilities.
Pocatello Regional (Idaho)
In Dec-2014 Pocatello City Council approved a USD75 million lease agreement with Pocatello Solar 1 LLC for the installation of 120 acres of solar panels on the northern edge of the airport. The power generated is sold to Idaho Power and the city of Pocatello will receive USD1500 annually for the first two years while the solar panels are being built. For the next 20 years, the city of Pocatello will be paid 3.4% of the operation’s gross revenues. The lease agreement provides Pocatello Solar 1 LLC with an additional option for a 15-year contract renewal.
Charleston Yeager (West Virginia)
In Dec-2014 the Charleston Yeager Airport Board approved the installation of three solar panel arrays, one atop the parking lot and two on the ground on the airport’s perimeter, at a total cost of USD15.8 million. The arrays will be made up of 12386 panels in total. The panels are expected to produce 5200 megawatt hours of power annually. The FAA was to fund 90% of the cost, with the remaining costs to come from the airport budget. Appalachian Electric Power will purchase the power generated, and the deal is expected to result in USD500,000 in savings annually. The project is expected to be completed in phases and by 2018. As of Feb-2015 final approval was awaited from the FAA.
Santa Barbara (California)
In Sep-2014 the Santa Barbara City Council approved the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport to install solar panels on the long-term parking lot, to offset the increased emissions that resulted from the airport's terminal expansion. The system consists of solar panels located on four canopies over the centre section of the parking lot, which combined are expected to produce 80% of the terminal’s power demand.
Burbank Bob Hope (California)
In Jul-2015 the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority authorised the execution of two agreements with the City of Burbank that would allow for the installation and maintenance of a solar panel system at Burbank Bob Hope Airport's Regional Intermodal Transportation Centre. The agreements also include the connected installation of plug-in electric vehicle charging stations at certain airport public parking lots.
In Feb-2015 the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission approved a request to amend city zoning code to allow for the installation of a solar farm west of Lincoln Airport. The plan is to install a five-megawatt solar farm on approximately 40 acres of land. Lincoln Electric System has signed a 20-year contract with HelioSage to purchase power from the farm. HelioSage plans to install the panels and have it be operational by the end of 2015. The farm is not expected to affect aeronautical operations.
Tampa International (Florida)
Installation work of solar panels on the top floor of the south economy parking lot at Tampa International Airport commenced in Jun-2015. At 2 MW and with enough electricity to power 250 homes, the project represents Tampa Electric’s largest solar photovoltaic installation, its first foray into utility‐scale solar power and the airport’s first use of an alternative energy source. The project target completion date is Dec-2015. In addition, the airport is looking into bolstering its fleet of alternative fuel vehicles, with a goal of having more than 70% of the fleet run on alternative fuel such as electricity by 2021. Customers who drive electric vehicles will also benefit by being offered some of the choicest parking spots in each of the airport parking lots.
In Jun-2014 the airport began installing solar panels which are expected gradually to meet all the airport's energy requirements, replacing fossil fuels. Operator Puerto del Sur said the model could then be copied at other airports, if successful at Montevideo. No completion date was reported.
Montpellier Méditerranée Airport announced at the beginning of Nov-2015 the installation of photovoltaic panels on the roof of the covered parking lot. The installation is expected to produce the equivalent of the annual electricity consumption of 1060 households. This is the largest solar plant installed in a French airport.
Warsaw Frederic Chopin
In Sep-2015 the airport said it plans to install photovoltaic panels with an expected output of 800kw on the roof of Terminal 1. The installation would provide between 15% and 20% of energy requirements.
The airport completed installation of more than 310sqm of solar panels in Jul-2015. The solar energy facility will provide a significant proportion of the power for the airport terminal. Angelholm Helsingborg Airport adopted a new environmental policy in 2007 and has already introduced more than 50 projects, cutting energy use by better than 40% and CO2 emissions by more than 50%.
The airport plans to install solar panels at the parking area to generate up to 25% of its electricity requirements. The airport said the panels would also provide shade for parked cars. Airports Authority of India (AAI) is currently considering the plan, which is in the final stages of approval.
The most popular locations on-airport
A glance at the table shows that there are clearly popular locations for installation, which are:
- Atop a terminal building;
- On the roof of fabricated car parks/garages or as part of the roof frame of external ‘open’ car parks, sometimes where the roof constitutes a ‘premium’ offer;
- On spare land within, or just outside, the airport’s operational boundaries.
Part 2 of this report:
Airports & the environment: Solar power begins generating stellar savings. Part 2 - operating issues
reviews how airlines can also benefit from installing solar power on their buildings, at technical advances that will create the next level of solar power applications, at the airport that is providing 100% of its power from solar energy, and at the potential pitfalls.