There have been several exciting advances in solar panels in recent years such as the production of new tandem solar cells, which promise to increase panel efficiency by 50%.
Other developments have seen thin film solar panels become more established as a flexible and affordable alternative to crystalline panels.
These developments have made solar more affordable and viable options for energy production at airports.
By Robert Cathcart, renewable energy researcher, copywriter, and blogger
From powering air traffic control operations to flight update boards and lighting, airports have relatively high energy needs. Powering these needs comes at a cost to airports, which is steadily growing with the increasing price of energy. This, paired with customer demand for cheaper, but more sustainable transportation, is putting real pressure on airport operators.
Some airports have already turned to solar power to help overcome these challenges. In this article, we explore the concept of solar-powered airports, what that might mean for their future, and how solar-powered airports can help advance the SDGs, including SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy).
Solar power: An overview
Before we dive into exactly how airports are and could be using solar power, let’s quickly touch on exactly what we mean when we use the term ‘solar power.’
Solar power is simply energy which is captured from the sun and converted into something we can use. Most commonly this is electricity, which is captured using monocrystalline, polycrystalline, or thin film solar panels. However, solar panels can also be used to directly heat water.
Solar power offers an alternative energy production method to traditional fossil fuels which is also considered more environmentally friendly due to no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions being produced during the electricity production process.
There have been several exciting advances in solar panels in recent years such as the production of new tandem solar cells, which promise to increase panel efficiency by 50%. Other developments have seen thin film solar panels become more established as a flexible and affordable alternative to crystalline panels. These developments have made solar more affordable and viable options for energy production at airports.
The need for sustainable airports
Air travel has often come under scrutiny for its environmental impact. This includes the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by airplanes as well as the localized air and noise pollution surrounding airports.
As global governments continue to recognize the importance of lowering carbon emissions in the context of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change and SDG 13 (climate action), we are likely to see more ambitious targets surrounding their reduction. For example, the UK government has outlined plans for the UK’s aviation industry to reach net zero by 2050.
Airports play a crucial part in the economy, not just by enabling international business travel, but also by bringing jobs to their local area, contributing to SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth). So, airports must focus on developing strategies for the future which consider both sustainability and growth.
Solar-powered airport case studies
Solar-powered airports aren’t all that new. In fact, many airports rely on solar power to facilitate at least part of their energy requirements. For example, Bristol Airport in the UK has a 36 kWp solar PV system installed at Lulsgate House on a specially optimized flat roof. This PV array is capable of generating a massive 36,889 kWh of clean energy per annum.
In 2015, Cochin International Airport in India announced they were the first airport to be entirely powered by solar energy. This was achieved by installing 46,000 solar panels at the airport which produces 12 MW of power to run the airport’s operations.
But Cochin isn’t the only airport looking to achieve this. Gautam Buddha International Airport in Nepal opened operations in April 2022 and is aiming to undertake further solar installations on-site to become fully powered by solar. When finished, the solar panels at Gautam Buddha International Airport will cost nearly USD 10 million and generate 10 MW of solar power.
In the US, Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport has undertaken a three-stage solar power installation that now accounts for 100% of the airport’s electricity needs.
Benefits and challenges of solar-powered airports
Although many airports have invested in solar power installations, this isn’t yet accepted as an industry-wide norm. This may, in part, be due to some of the challenges surrounding their application. One of the biggest challenges is the upfront cost of solar panels. Although panels have dropped in price considerably in recent years, with large energy needs, the majority of airports would have to make a significant investment in solar panels in order to be 100% powered by solar.
Intermittent energy supply, due to no sun being present at night, is also a major challenge. This could be overcome by the installation of Li-ion batteries. Yet on such a large scale these are likely to be large and very expensive.
Space for solar panels is another concern. Although many more remote airports could benefit from suitable surrounding land, airports in built-up areas (such as city airports) will struggle to find suitable space for panel installation.
However, as we continue to see panel prices fall, panel efficiency increase, and the cost of fossil fuels rise, the economic potential for solar panel installations at airports is a positive one. In addition, when you consider ambitious targets for carbon reduction in the aviation space, the long-term advantages of solar outweigh the challenges.
Future trends and innovations
So, what does the future of solar look like at airports? Several key innovations in the solar space are likely to make it easier than ever for airports to benefit from solar power. For example, the advancement of thin film solar panels is enabling innovators to introduce them to Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) in more ways, such as including clear solar cells in transparent materials which could be used in airport windows. One of the advantages of thin film solar is efficiency isn’t dictated by the solar panel angle in comparison to the sun.
An increase in panel efficiency could also make solar power a viable option for airports in built-up areas, requiring less space to produce a worthwhile amount of energy. Smart airport design could help improve the use of solar power at airports, such as introducing solar charging points for electric cars which use airport parking facilities.
It is clear that solar power already plays a major role in the airport space. The benefits of solar within this industry are huge. In fact, it is unlikely that we will see a future for airports as we know them without solar power playing a key role in powering them.
It has been demonstrated that large-scale airports can run on 100% solar energy. These cases will act as a powerful tool for encouraging other airports around the globe to follow suit.