Washington State Airport Harnesses the Sun

Kathy Scott
Published in: 

As an airport manager, you've likely been approached about building a solar array on airport property. You're not alone. Since 2007, federal and state tax credits designed to encourage green energy production have prompted private companies to seek out public entities with large undeveloped property, like airfields.

Small and large airports alike are jumping into solar projects to varying degrees. Jefferson County International Airport (TWD) in Port Townsend, WA, demonstrates that airport solar farms don't have to break the million-dollar mark to be successful. In 2010, Power Trip Energy Corp. approached the entity that manages TWD (the Port of Port Townsend) about using a consortium to fund a solar panel array at the airport.


Project: Solar Energy Array
Location: Jefferson County (WA) Int'l Airport
Cost: $135,000
Solar Installation: Power Trip Energy Corp.
Solar Panels: Silicon-Energy
Size: 88 x 190 watt pv modules totaling 16.7kw

"Public entities can't take advantage of the 30% federal tax credit, so private investors that could use those tax credits can be good partners," explains Andy Cochrane, president of Power Trip Energy. "Airports typically have large unshaded and unused areas of ground and rooftops available
for solar arrays."

Jefferson Solar Group was consequently established, and it financed the purchase and installation of solar panels at TWD, says Jim Pivarnik, Port deputy director. The group will lease the airport property for 10 years and earn the associated tax incentives during that time. The airport, in turn, uses energy collected by the array to power runway lights, the airfield beacon and an airport building. After 10 years, the Port has the option of purchasing the solar array at an amortized rate or continuing to allow the Solar Group to own/maintain the array and earn the associated tax benefits.

Power Trip Energy provided a turnkey installation and maintenance, which totaled  $135,000, again, paid for by the Jefferson Solar Group. Cochrane notes that the photovoltaic components used in the TWD array are more costly than other options, because they were made in Washington and yield a higher incentive rate. Manufactured by Silicon Energy of Marysville, WA, the panels are a double-glass photovoltaic module with a 125 psf wind and snow loading on both the front and back, says Susan Mattison, the company's national sales and marketing director.

Washington is not unique in using legislation to foster and incentivize green energy initiatives. Mattison encourages airport executives to review the Department of Energy's database of state incentives for renewables and efficiencies at www.DSIREUSA.org. It provides all federal, state, local and utility incentives, she notes.

"Most states offer net metering, which means the utility will credit your bill for the electricity you sell back to the grid," explains Mattison. "There are often low-interest loans and other local financing programs available."

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 30 states and the District of Columbia have enforceable renewable portfolio standards or other mandated renewable capacity policies as of January 2012. 

Cochrane urges airports considering solar projects to contact their state chapter of the American Solar Energy Society. In addition to providing helpful background information, they can provide recommendations for solar developers/contractors.

TWD's array, located on the west side of the airport, includes 88 x 190 watt photovoltaic modules, totaling 16.7 kilowatts. The panels are covered by a 30-year warranty, but tests performed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory predict a much longer expected life, notes Cochrane.

"In this case, the Port saves about 10% on (the airport's) electric bill and derives some minimal income from leasing the land for the array," he says. "The Jefferson Solar Group sells the electricity generated at a reduced rate to the Port, and the investors pocket the tax credit and the state's annual production incentive, which should provide sufficient income to pay for the system by 2020."
At that time, if the investors and the Port agree on a purchase price for the array, ownership will transfer to the Port, and it can use the array to generate all of its own electricity, Cochrane explains.

Currently, the Port is sending back more power than it is using, and electricity costs are down, reports Pivarnik.

Other Arrays

Over the past several years, solar energy businesses have helped cultivate partnerships between private and public entities. In 2010, the FAA released Technical Guidance for Evaluating Selected Solar Technologies on Airports to meet the associated information demands.

"Airport interest in solar energy is growing rapidly as a way to reduce airport operating costs and to demonstrate a commitment to sustainable development," notes the guide. "Most existing airport solar projects involve an airport partnership with private investors. These arrangements take advantage of federal and state tax credits and state-mandated electric utility purchases of renewable energy. Sponsors benefit from these arrangements through lower airport electric utility bills, lease revenues and the delegation of maintenance costs."

In 2011, Denver International Airport (DIA) completed a 4.4-megawatt ground-mounted solar power system on 45 acres of its land. Constellation Energy built and maintains the system, and DIA buys electricity produced by the solar panels.

Indianapolis International Airport (IND) has had a solar project in the works for more than two years. It expects to complete the Indiana Solar Farm this fall. The 44,000-panel array on 75 acres is designed to produce 25 megawatts of energy. Indianapolis Power & Light Co. will purchase the energy produced and feed it directly into its grid.

IND's project is the result of a partnership between Telamon Corp. and Johnson Melloh Solutions, which partnered with the Indianapolis Airport Authority, the city of Indianapolis, Indianapolis Power & Light Co. and General Energy Solutions.

Renewable or Responsible?

Some people struggle with the very definition of "renewable energy" and consider it a bit of an oxymoron. Energy is not renewable. Once it's used, it's gone. This isn't, however, an argument against harnessing solar, wind or water power to produce energy.

Using such resources doesn't pollute the air or deplete natural reserves, but the products and equipment needed to generate electricity from them and deliver it to users does require traditional materials with finite lifespans.


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