Why not turn airports into giant solar farms?

The next time you look out of an airplane window during take off or landing, scan the airport. You will see hangars and other support buildings and, of course, the terminal. Most importantly, you will see a lot of empty space. Airplanes, as many aviation engineers have noted, love open spaces – for obvious reasons, including not getting along with trees.

Do you know what also likes open spaces? Solar panels, which abhor the shadows not only of trees but also of tall buildings. So why don’t we cover our airports – dedicated spaces that cannot be used for anything other than air travel – with solar panels? Well, it turns out that airports not only have a lot of empty space, but also a lot of rules.

But first let’s talk about their potential. New research in Australia shows how extremely efficient it would be to solarize 21 airports in that country. Researchers scanned satellite images of airports for open rooftop space, where solar panels best avoid shadows, and found a total of 2.61 square kilometers, or 1 square mile, of usable area.

For comparison, they also scanned satellite images and found 17,000 residential solar panels in the town of Bendigo, just north of Melbourne in southern Australia. The researchers calculated that airports could potentially produce 10 times more solar energy than those 17,000 residential panels – enough to power 136,000 homes. Perth Airport alone would generate twice as much as Bendigo. (Perth is very sunny and the airport has a lot of large buildings.) They further calculated that solarizing the 21 airports would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 152 kilotons per year, the equivalent of removing 71,000 passenger cars. of the road.

With their abundant sunshine, Australians sit on the energy equivalent of a gold mine; vast expanses of unspoiled roofs in airports offer the possibility of centralizing solar energy production. Installing panels house by house is great – and no one is saying we should stop because we need all the solar power we can get. But commercial signs are bigger and more efficient, so they can generate more power. Additionally, residential roofs come in all shapes and sizes, making them more difficult to work with than a commercial roof, which is usually flat. “Just imagine the labor to install on all forms of residential buildings,” says Chayn Sun, geospatial scientist at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, corresponding author of the new paper describing the modeling in the Journal of Building Engineering. “Compare that with low-rise, flat-roofed airport buildings.”

Airport solarization could potentially power the airport itself and even exporting energy. “Not only can they be self-sufficient, but they can also have surplus electricity that they can send to the grid to power the surrounding area,” Sun says.

While paneling these roofs can be effective, it still won’t be easy. In the United States, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration is requiring airport officials to prove that their new panels will not produce glare, by projecting sunlight into the eyes of pilots and air traffic controllers in the tower. . (This should not be a problem, thanks to coatings on modern solar panels, but it’s still something officials need to consider in their planning.) The FAA also wants to be sure the panels don’t interfere with radar communications to the airport.

In addition, mounting panels on existing roofs could require renovation, which will increase costs, says Scott Morrisey, senior vice president of sustainability at Denver International Airport, aka DEN. But when building new structures or expanding terminals, solar capacity can be built right into the plan. “The fact that you are design and integrating solar power into this building makes it a lot more cost effective than going back and trying to renovate older buildings, ”says Morrisey.

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