Plattsburgh Int'l Cuts Heating Costs with Solar Technology

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

At Plattsburgh International Airport (PBG) in upstate New York, heating accounted for 60% of overall energy costs. But a fully funded solar project slated for completion in late April is expected to slash next winter's heating bills.

Airport manager Tom Long describes the predicament: "Several buildings at the airport were unmarketable because the utility bills were so high. We have a 166,000-square-foot hangar with an annual heating cost of $355,000. No one wants to rent with utility bills like that. So we started looking for ways to drop the heating load and offset these costs."


Project: Solar Panel Installation

Location: Plattsburgh (NY) Int'l Airport

Scope: 20,840 sq. ft. of panels on 3 hangars & 1 industrial building

Cost: $621,000

Funding: 100% ARRA Funds

Fund Distribution: NY State Energy Research & Development Authority

Product: SolarWall(r) by Conserval

Contractor: Dynamic Construction

Tenants Affected: Smardt Chillers, PJM, Homeland Security (two hangars)

Noteworthy: Heating costs projected to drop about 66%; return on investment expected in 5-7 years

After researching various renewable energy products, PBG contracted Conserval Engineering to install its SolarWall(r) panels on four airport buildings for $621,000.

Interestingly, one of the buildings is an industrial facility leased by Smardt Chillers, which manufactures energy-efficient centrifugal chillers. Now, the airport tenant makes energy-efficient chillers in an energy-efficient facility, Long points out wryly.

Simple as Siding

Starting in early December 2010, general contractor Dynamic Construction installed solar panels on three 28,000-square-foot hangars and another 26,500-square-foot structure. Crews completed one building per month.

"The real beauty of SolarWall," says Neil Garrett, Conserval's national account manager, "is that it's just like putting up siding. It can be retrofitted on virtually any building."

The system is comprised of micro-perforated panels and an internal framing system that creates a six-inch air cavity. Solar radiation heats the surface of the panels, and ventilation fans create negative pressure in the air cavity, drawing solar-heated air through the tiny perforations. The preheated outside air flows upward into ducts in the ceiling of the building and is dispersed using an independent fan or the building's air handling system.

Heat destratification is a major benefit of the system, says Garrett.

"Using conventional heating systems to pump hot air into a high-ceilinged building like a hangar is very inefficient," he explains. "The hot air rises and the air at floor level is much cooler. With SolarWall, heavier outdoor air is brought into the building to mix with the less dense indoor air at the ceiling level, and the mixed air drops downward toward floor level."

According to Garrett, if a building's temperature is set at 60° F, the temperature may be 50° F at floor level and 70° F at the ceiling.

Airport officials opted to install the two-stage SolarWall system, which is designed to provide a higher temperature rise by heating air twice. With this system, fresh air enters through perforations in the bottom half of the panels. Polycarbonate glazing over the upper half of the panels boosts the temperature of the air as it rises through the air cavity while eliminating heat loss from wind.

According to Garrett, it's not uncommon for two-stage SolarWall systems to have a 50° temperature rise. They also provide aesthetic variety.

"The polycarbonate glazing on the upper half of the two-stage system has a glass-like look to it, which looks really good next to the unglazed lower half of the panel system," he notes.

Long agrees that the panels help dress up the airport facilities. One tenant characterized the panels as a "huge improvement in the look of the building."

Good Timing

Total cost to install 20,840 square feet of solar panels to heat 111,000 square feet of space in four buildings was $621,000. As it turns out, the project was a perfect fit submitted at the perfect time to receive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the agency responsible for evaluating proposals and dispersing monies, fully funded the airport project.

The panels are covered by a 30-year limited warranty and require no maintenance, says Garrett. "These 26-gauge steel panels will last a long time," he adds enthusiastically. "You don't have to do a thing to them. The rain cleans them, and there are no moving parts."

NYSERDA will monitor the system's performance and energy savings for accountability to taxpayers.

Garrett credits airport management for having the vision to search out innovative solutions to high utility costs.

"Airport management understood the problem," he relates. "Instead of moving toward traditional solutions, they moved outside the box to consider renewable energy solutions. We worked together to fill out the forms, NYSERDA's engineers reviewed the project, liked what they saw, and said, 'let's fund it.'"

Long is excited about future energy savings and the projected five- to seven-year investment payback on the project.

"We would like to install solar panels on all the buildings here at the airport," he says enthusiastically. "We will also encourage businesses that wish to build at the airport in the future to install the panels."

Although hard data isn't in yet, Long projects that tenants' heating bills will be about one-third of what they were before the solar panels were installed.

"In one of the hangars," he relates, "it used to take over three hours to reheat the hangar when they opened the doors to get an aircraft out. Now it's only taking 45 minutes, so they don't have to use all that natural gas from the conventional heating system."


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