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Chattanooga airport leads sustainability; pressure on others grows

Sustainability and environmental responsibility are clearly mainstays in the global aviation industry and many airports worldwide are making changes to reduce their environmental footprint, anticipating the added benefit of reducing costs. 

Solar panels are becoming more commonplace at airports and in the US, Chattanooga airport has reached a major milestone in becoming the first airport in the country to run completely on renewable energy from solar panels.

This is a significant development, and Chattanooga seems to have addressed some of the unique challenges that airports face as they evaluate adding or expanding their use of solar panels, including the issue of glint and glare problems for pilots. 

It could be some time before other airports in the US follow Chattanooga’s lead as airports located in larger metro areas may face space constraints in installing enough solar panels to replace the use of electricity completely.

But Chattanooga could offer lessons to other airports, which will increasingly become included in renewable energy schemes adopted by their respective municipalities. 

Summary

  • Chattanooga is the first US airport to transition from electrical to 100% renewable energy. 
  • Having learned on its journey to becoming fully dependent on renewable energy, the airport no doubt can share lessons that are unique to the aviation industry. 
  • Other US airports may not (yet) be positioned to follow Chattanooga’s lead, but there is a growing movement among the country’s states and municipalities to meet or exceed their stated renewable energy goals. 

Chattanooga marks a major milestone: running now solely on renewable energy

US airports largely use solar panels consisting of photovoltaic cells that absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity. 

Chattanooga airport recently completed the third and final phase of a 12 acre solar power farm that generates 2.64MW of power. In total this finished an eight-year, USD10 million, project that was mostly funded by the US FAA

Chattanooga Airport Authority vice president of Airport Planning John Naylor recently told the Chattanoogan that in 2007 the airport used 5.6MW of power, and during the next three years there was an effort to reduce consumption that included switching taxiway lights to LED and replacing terminal heating and AC systems with more high efficiency units. That cut the airport’s power consumption by 2MW per year, he explained. 

Renewable energy is a major focus of the Chattanooga region. Mr Naylor explained to the Chattanoogan that “we sit in a bowl”, noting that the mountains around the area can trap emissions in the valley where Chattanooga is located. The more emissions that are produced, “the worse our air is”, he said. 

With the completion of the solar power farm, Chattanooga now runs 100% on renewable energy, which will provide cost benefits to the airport as well as making it a leader in environmental sustainability. 

Chattanooga is able to address US FAA concerns over solar power glare issues 

Chattanooga’s eight-year experience in building up its solar power farm offers insight into evolving trends for solar power use at airports. 

One conclusion reached in a 2014 report published by US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was that considerations about glint and glare issues for pilots are one aspect in the successful implementation of solar panel systems at airports.

Mr Naylor told The Chattanoogan that initially the FAA was concerned about solar installations at airports due to reflectivity issues – interference with line of sight for pilots as they were landing. 

“They really pushed back on us during our first grant application”, he told the publication. “We had to bring the solar panel manufacturer to the table with the FAA’s regional office staff to help allay their concerns. Ultimately, we changed the angle of the panels to put the reflection above the pilot’s line of site for final approach, which made them comfortable enough for us to proceed.” 

Positioning of solar panels to minimise their time in the shade is also important. According to the NREL report, areas for solar installation need to be free from shade between 0900 and 1500 and fixed mount panels should be oriented south in the Northern Hemisphere. 

However, at times those recommendations are tough to accommodate.

NREL stated that in Boulder, Colorado, “Losses due to orientation are about 4% for a panel facing 45° east of south and about 10% for one facing 45° west of south (due to the mountains to the west). While an orientation east or west of south is not ideal because of the resulting reduction in energy production, it may be necessary due to land availability constraints or to minimize or alleviate glint or glare issues”. 

States and regions are increasingly setting sustainability goals for US airports

For airports in more populated areas there may not be enough land available to install enough solar panels for there to be a complete dependence on renewable energy. Not every airport has 12 acres of land for the installation of solar panels; some might face challenges finding a location that is ideal for taking advantage of maximum sunlight but is also one that ensures that pilots don’t experience glare at the same time. 

But any reduction in dependence on the electric grid is beneficial. Obviously Chattanooga no longer has an electric bill, and other airports have an opportunity to reduce their electricity expense substantially. 

For example, Hawaii’s department of transportation has a 20-year contract with Johnson Controls that entails installation of solar panels in parking garages at Honolulu International airport, which along with other conservation measures should cut the airport’s electric bill by half. 

The project at Honolulu International airport is part of the state of Hawaii’s larger goal to use 100% renewable energy by 2045. Renewable energy goals are growing across the US as many municipalities set their own targets and increasingly include airports in their overall targets. 

Latest airport efforts show renewable, sustainable energy's growing momentum

Environmental sustainability is arguably a mainstay in global business worldwide, and the aviation industry is one that remains under particular scrutiny. 

US airports and all airports worldwide are working to reduce their environmental footprint – from a sense of civic responsibility, and also as a means to reduce their overall expense, now and in the future. 

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