Solar Airports

As it has winged its way around the globe, Solar Impulse 2, the ethereal aircraft fuelled only by the power of sunlight soaked up by thousands of photovoltaic (PV) cells, has caught the imagination of a public waking up to the possibility of a world energised by renewables. But below the wingspan of this futuristic, ‘pie-in-the-sky’ aircraft, airports – with their ever growing electricity demands – are living proof that solar is not just a flight of fancy but grounded in the reality of today.

While the number of solar megawatts silently helping to power airports is still very small – perhaps with an installed capacity of only several hundred megawatts compared with a 2015 worldwide PV cumulative total of nearly 230GW – the trend is slowly starting to become visible to window-seated airline passengers as they roll down the world’s runways. In the US, the country that is probably the biggest future market for airport-based solar PV systems, a June 2014 report by the government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated the potential for nearly 117GW of PV installations on ‘idle’ land at airports, a calculation it even characterised as “conservative”.

When you talk to Stefan Mueller, ‘conservative’ is not a word that comes to mind. He is a co-owner of Germany-headquartered Enerparc, a company involved in all parts of the value chain for PV installations. His first forays into the field of airport PV came in 2010 after realising that the military airports of East Germany, abandoned by the Soviet Union following the reunification of the once-divided nation, offered excellent sites for solar parks – large, flat areas of land with medium-voltage lines for feeding nearby grids.

The land at these facilities, some still in active use for aviation, were often heavily contaminated after decades of use by the Soviets, requiring clean-up before large-scale The plane truth about solarWith ample land at airports simply standing idly by and the need to curb carbon emissions an omnipresent concern for the aviation industry, repurposing wasted space for clean electricity
generation by way of large solar installations seems a smart, simple and straightforward strategy.

That was just the beginning of using large-scale solar for airports, however. As of June this year, around 800MW have been installed at roughly 30 airports in Germany, the largest being a 145MW system at Neuhardenberg, close to Berlin.

While airport PV is only about 15% of Enerparc’s nearly 1GW of installed and owned solar capacity, Mueller expects this new market to grow (see interview, page 19). “It’s a no-brainer,” he says, particularly for airport owners and operators looking to lessen electricity load and cost. The solar harvest usually provides 10–30% of an airport’s needs. There is proof, however, that 100% is a realistic aim. In India, where Enerparc is finding airport PV to be a lucrative market, a 12MW installation at Cochin International Airport in the south-west coastal city of Kochi, with about four million passengers a year, is covering all of the airport’s electricity needs. While the driver for solar parks in the US is often CO2 abatement and, in Germany, the revitalisation of brownfield sites, the incentive to go solar in India is “purely economic”, according to Santosh Khatelsal, the managing director of Enerparc India.