Solar Panels and Airports, like Peanut Butter and Jelly

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels have shown increasing economic vitality as their price has dropped dramatically over the last decade, and is expected to drop another 10% per year through 2020 (see The Rise of Cheap Solar?)1.  With falling costs of PV panels, there is more economic benefit for investing in large land areas for solar farm arrays for efficient electricity generation.  Recent posts have discussed clever ideas for strategically-placed PV panels in parking lots, on top of bridges, and above canal waterways.2,3  In addition to these great ideas, installing solar PV panels near airports is an ideal opportunity.  Many airports have large open areas because they are restricted for habitation by FAA regulation.4  This makes for efficient use of land that is  uninhabitable and cannot be used for commercial purposes.  Moreover, height restrictions on structures close to the airport minimize sunlight obstruction from buildings.

Many airports across the U.S. have already seized the opportunity for adding solar arrays.  Denver International Airport appears to be leading the way in land utilization for solar PV panels, which now provide 6% of its electricity.5  Recently, the Indianapolis International Airport began construction on a massive 75-acre solar farm for 41,000 panels…enough energy to power 1,200 homes.  Airport officials note that “it is a rare opportunity to develop land that close to the airport.”6

Indy solar farm

Artist rendition of the solar farm at Indianapolis International Airport upon completion6

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seems to be fully onboard with the massive integration of solar panels on airport land.  They have issued a Technical Guidance for Evaluating Selected Solar Technologies on Airports.7  Despite the unquestionable synergy between airports and solar panels, some are still missing out.  Particularly surprising to me is that the southeastern states appear to be showing relatively little interest in solar PVs near airports according to information from the FAA.8  Ultimately, the success of solar PVs near airports like those in Denver, California, and even Indiana, will have a large impact on the continued use and expansion of PV panels to both large and small airports.  Hopefully, this will prove to be an effective means of reducing the large carbon footprint of airports across the nation.

interest in PV solar

Map showing annual solar resource data and airport interest in solar PV (March 2011)8




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3 responses to “Solar Panels and Airports, like Peanut Butter and Jelly

  1. katherinesandhop

    Using airport land to produce energy with solar arrays is a really interesting solution. All the land restrictions yield the land practically useless and solar panels slide through those restrictions easily. This renewable solution is also cost efficient. The life of a PV panel is increasing in time just as the cost is decreasing.

    I’m also curious as to the trend around the nation. This map of major airports ( makes it fairly obvious why the hottest part of the nation (Arizona and New Mexico) can only have so much development in this area due to so few airports. The highest concentration of airports is in the northeast which does not have as high of sun intensity rates. But as you mentioned, there is a lot of room for growth throughout the nation especially in the southeast (specifically Florida).

  2. Agee Springer

    Thanks for this informative post. It’s always great to see instances like this where installing renewables is a no-brainer! One of the first thoughts that popped into my head though was that there could potentially be a glare issue arising from putting that many solar panels near runways. While I know little about what goes into landing a plane, it seems like it would be a fairly delicate operation and having so many large reflective surfaces in the flight path might make landing more difficult.

    A google search turned up only one instance of glare from airport solar arrays being a problem. However, it wasn’t a problem for pilots. The Manchester-Boston Regional Airport had installed a 2200-module solar array on the roof of their parking garage. This array was at just the right hight to cast a bright glare on the control tower for about 45 minutes each morning [1]. Part of the array had to be covered with tarps until the problem could be fixed. The good news was that no airplane pilots have complained of problems with glare off the panels. Hopefully, that trend will hold up, because this is a great use of the land near airports!


  3. michaelsimpson1

    This is a fascinating topic, and is becoming more entrenched as a smart business practice for airports. In addition to some of the benefits you mention – large, uninhabitable plots of land, cheap (long-term) and self-sustaining electricity, etc. – there are even more positives, including a return on investment from the generator leasing the land, property tax revenues (if the airport is municipally-owned), and additional revenues accrued via excess generation. As a follow-up to Agee’s point, most crystalline PV arrays are typically lined with an anti-reflective coating, which can absorb up to 96% of sunlight [1]. Even the most conservative estimates place the reflectivity of coated solar panels in the same general vicinity as sand and vegetation [2]. Most concerns regarding solar farms on airport land are thus unjustified.

    Nevertheless, many airports have determined that the capital costs of installing a large-scale solar farm are too expensive and do not exhibit sufficiently high rates of return. Grants such as the SECO block grant are available to local agencies seeking to install renewable technologies. Similarly, airports can seek investors to contribute to the cost of installation. Still, these contributions are often too small to cover the outsize costs of installation. The City of Dallas, for instance, was considering constructing a solar farm on 1,040 acres at the Dallas Executive Airport, but decided that the benefits were not commensurate with costs [3]. For this to be a favorable arrangement, airports will need to either limit the scope of installation (i.e., small-scale solar arrays) or align incentives with the Power-Purchase Agreements. [4]





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