The concentration of solar farms in the U.S. Southwest’s desert is one of the fastest-growing areas of expansion of alternative energy in the U.S. One measure is that in the desert, solar costs are only a third of what it costs in a similarly sun-drenched place like California’s Central Valley.
To benefit from the plunging cost of solar electricity, the U.S. is trying to raise the number of solar-power generating projects throughout the country. One promising way to accomplish that is to set up distributed generation sites at airports, where multiple rooftops and trees absorb sunlight and can be used to generate electricity with smaller panels. There is a wide variety of sites to choose from. Commercial and military airports can be exempt from an existing FAA rule that bans the development of new commercial solar energy projects at airports.
Airports’ few existing solar facilities also often have tax breaks or other incentives.
For instance, the Louisville/Louisville International Airport in Kentucky put solar panels on its parking lot in 2011. Local officials are now looking to expand the project and are confident that they can receive tax abatements or other incentives for it. The solar is expected to generate around 11 percent of the airport’s current electricity needs, making it profitable. The $20 million development could also become a model for other airports to consider.
In Arizona, the Kingman air traffic control tower is expected to have around 60 photovoltaic cells on its roof installed in a matter of months. The panels produce about 6 percent of the power used by the tower, and were installed and retrofitted in January. The tower was originally set up as a single-pilot control tower, but it has since been switched to a blended tower configuration with two pilots to help streamline traffic flow, making the electric generating capacity unnecessary.
In a few years, California may be looking at the prospect of more solar energy coming from airports, says Patricia Furgeson, a marketing director for GenOn, a Kansas-based electricity company that announced a $240 million joint venture with the Songdo Group last year that was to build around 200 megawatts of solar farms in South Korea. The news channel ABC7 estimated that GenOn’s venture could become the largest solar farm ever built in the U.S.
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