KEY POINTS

  • Some 20% of nearly 500 public airports in the U.S. have adopted solar energy over the past decade
  • The pace of deployment of renewable energy can be partly attributed to the differences between general-purpose and special-purpose airports
  • Denver International Airport, or DIA, has one of the largest airport solar projects in the country

Some 20% of nearly 500 public airports in the U.S. have adopted solar energy over the past decade, according to research from University of Colorado-Denver.

Serena Kim, a researcher at CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs, specified that these airports have installed solar photovoltaic cells in their energy apparatus.

Kim’s study found that airports operated by general-purpose governments (that is, cities, states, or counties) have deployed solar panels more often than special-purpose governments (port or airport authorities) as of 2020.

The pace of deployment of renewable energy can be partly attributed to the differences between general-purpose and special-purpose airports. For example, more than 80% of general-purpose board members are elected and only 7% of special-purpose airport board members are elected, she said.

“Airport board members, directors, and managers’ leadership, and their interactions with other airport professionals can promote renewable energy transitions at airports,”  Kim said.

Denver International Airport, or DIA, has one of the largest airport solar projects in the country -- having installed nearly 43,000 solar panels spread out over 56 acres.

Other major airports using solar energy include Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Tallahassee International Airport, and Orlando International Airport.

The CU-Denver study determined that DIA was able to deploy solar energy successfully due to support from city government, airport leadership, and its electricity provider, Xcel Energy (XEL).

As a result of the airport's extensive dependence on solar energy, its carbon footprint has been reduced through the operation of 10 megawatts in solar facilities. The airport also pays less than the average electricity cost for the energy generated from the solar arrays constructed after 2012.

“DIA’s solar energy project is an example of successful collaborative partnerships,” Kim said. “All solar arrays at DIA are developed by public-private partnerships. Private solar companies own and operate the solar systems, and DIA executes power purchase agreements with the private solar companies. Xcel Energy plays a key role in the partnership as they offer rebates to offset the construction costs, purchase excess energy, and retain renewable energy certificates.”

Kim added: “Accessing clean, reliable, and affordable energy is integral to resilient, sustainable, and equitable futures. Policymakers who wish to facilitate on-site solar use should consider strategies for addressing resource and information gaps across investor-owned utilities, municipal utilities, and rural electric cooperatives.”

Even smaller airports are planning to develop solar projects.

For example, Knox County Regional Airport in Maine plans to build a $10-million solar farm to make the complex more environmentally sustainable.

The 5-megawatt solar farm is expected to generate enough energy to power the entire airport. It would include up to 17,000 solar panels located on 30 acres that the county owns near the airport.

“It would make [the airport] completely financially independent from the taxpayer,” said Knox County Regional Airport Manager Jeremy Shaw. (The airport is currently partly funded by taxpayers.)

On the other side of the world, the airport in Melbourne, Australia – also known as Tullamarine Airport – is planning a huge solar energy project designed to generate enough power for all four of its passenger terminals.

Tullamarine Airport is slated to produce 16.8 gigawatt hours of electricity annually, enough to satisfy 15% of the airport’s annual power consumption. Once it becomes operational in January 2021, the 10 megawatt project will be Australia’s largest solar farm at an airport, exceeding Brisbane Airport’s 5.73 megawatt installation.

GHD, a professional services company, provides technical advice to Melbourne Airport.

“By using solar power, Melbourne Airport will significantly reduce its carbon emissions and achieve cost savings,” said Alex Low, GHD’s project manager. “Because the system is ‘behind the meter’ and off the main grid, while the site is still close enough to the airport, they will be able to provide their own power directly to the terminals.”

The Australian government seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

“In the midst of the global energy transition, many companies are taking steps to decarbonize their operations where possible,” said Mike Atkinson, GHDs sustainability service line leader in Australia. “It is great to see more and more airports developing solar panel installations on site. And while now is a very challenging time for the aviation industry, and Melbourne Airport is not as busy as it was pre-COVID-19, this is a good time to prepare for a cleaner, cost effective and more sustainable energy future.”