Why Airports Are Embracing Renewable Energy

A huge array of solar panels lines a runway at an airport in Weeze, Germany. Major airports throughout the world are considering moving to alternative energy sources. Aerovista Luchtfotografie/Shutterstock

The largest airports in the world have the land areas and populations of small cities. They operate around the clock and move tens of millions of passengers each year. They are constantly looking for ways to source the power needed to keep their energy-hungry operations on track.

For an increasing number of hubs, this means at least partially switching to renewable energy.

Airport electricity in the headlines

The issue of airport energy usage came to the forefront during a December 2017 power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The blackout led to more than 1,000 delayed and canceled flights and reportedly cost Delta Airlines, the main commercial carrier at the Georgia hub, as much as $50 million.

This disaster (at least for those traveling that day) was caused by a logistical faux pas: The airport's primary and backup power cables both ran through the same tunnel, so a fire in that vital passageway, under the airport, took out the two connections simultaneously.

Is reliability a reason to switch to solar or wind power at airports? It could be.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, which produced a study on the subject, one potential benefit of changing to renewables is that airports could have more control over their electrical infrastructure because energy would be produced and distributed onsite.

Other benefits of renewable energy at airports

The solar panel array at the Indianapolis airport
The Indianapolis airport claims to host the largest airport-based solar farm in the world. Cenergy

Producing energy onsite would mean that the day-to-day operations would be less affected by global energy markets. This is a major advantage for the air travel industry, especially considering airlines’ profits often hinge on fuel prices. Increased energy costs on the ground could lead to an airport charging higher landing fees. Airlines often pass these fees onto their customers in the form of higher fares or additional usage fees.

The NAS study looked at a variety of renewables, including solar, wind, biomass, fuel cells, geothermal and hydropower. For most airports, solar makes the most sense. Airfields require open space between runways and taxiways, and usually have clear areas around the airport to facilitate better security and safe landings and takeoffs.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), part of the US Department of Energy, published a study that estimated that there is more than 800,000 combined acres of vacant land inside the nation’s airports. If all this space was used for solar arrays, the resulting energy production would be approximately 116,000 megawatts. That's roughly the same amount of energy produced by 100 coal-fired plants.

Real life examples of renewable airport energy

This renewable energy revolution remains hypothetical, but an increasing number of airports have made the leap to solar and wind in real life.

England’s Gatwick and Birmingham airports have 50-kilowatt solar arrays. Cochin (Kochi) International has two solar installations that add up to a total of 13.1 megawatts. These provide enough electricity to meet the power needs for the airport — India’s fourth busiest — for the year.

In the U.S., Indianapolis, Fresno, Minneapolis-Saint Paul and San Diego are among the hubs that already have put supplemental solar power online.

In the Netherlands, meanwhile, Royal Schiphol Group has partnered with a wind power provider to produce electricity for its four airports. The hubs, including Amsterdam Schiphol and Rotterdam, will get 100 percent of their power from renewables by 2018. This is possible because the Netherlands has a well-developed wind infrastructure. In most cases, for obvious reasons, having wind turbines near runways is not the safest option.

A less obvious, but still important, issue involves placement of solar panels at airports. Glare could cause problems for pilot visibility and heat from the panels could disturb air patterns near the ground, causing unstable takeoff and landing conditions.

The FAA and airports have found a way around these drawbacks by choosing strategic sites for the arrays. However, these issues do show that renewable energy development is not as simple as placing solar panels on every available acre within airport grounds.

What about pollution?

The air travel and air cargo industries have been criticized for their carbon emissions. Biofuel mixtures, more-direct routes and more-efficient planes may help reduce the carbon contributions of air travel, but a significant increase in the number of fliers is projected for the coming decades. Planes may be greener, but many more of them will be in the air.

For their part, airlines are already a decade into their effort to cut the industry’s emissions in half by 2050. Ideally for them, working toward this goal will help stave off stricter regulations and carbon-related tariffs.

Renewable energy at airports could help with this industry-wide goal, so airports could have an incentive to move ahead with plans to adopt or increase solar and wind power. Stakeholders could be pushing for this because it is one of the most straightforward ways to lower the industry’s overall carbon emissions.