Why Solar Power Is Taking Off At Airports Across The Country


The biggest solar power project in the entire state of Minnesota is going to be at an airport.

On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton joined officials from the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport to announce the construction of a $25 million solar project there, which will be built on top of two parking ramps at the airport’s main terminal. The solar panels are expected to produce 3 megawatts (MW) of power, and generate close to 20 percent of the airport’s total electricity.


Beyond the airport, the project means that Minnesota itself will have 20 percent more solar capacity than it did before.

“Minnesota’s nation-leading clean energy policies, and projects like this one, have significantly reduced carbon emissions in our state while helping create thousands of new jobs,” Dayton said.

Dayton’s not wrong — airport solar projects like the one in Minnesota have been on the rise, creating construction jobs and helping reduce air pollution at airports across the country.

The increase can be attributed both to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program aimed at reducing airport emissions, but also the simple fact that solar can provide significant savings for an industry with high monetary and environmental costs.


“Airport interest in solar energy is growing rapidly as a way to reduce airport operating costs and to demonstrate commitment to sustainable airport development,” says the website of Harris Miller Miller & Hanson Inc., a consulting firm that helped write the FAA’s regulatory guidance for solar power at airports.

CREDIT: Harris Miller Miller & Hanson, Inc.
CREDIT: Harris Miller Miller & Hanson, Inc.

Right now, airport operating costs are high, so high that the majority of airports lose money every year. A substantial portion of those costs come from energy use. In fact, the Airport Cooperative Research Program says airports are one of the largest public users of energy in the country. In terms of expenses, energy is often the second largest operating expense, exceeded only by personnel, according to the ACRP.

One way to reduce energy costs is simply to reduce electricity use, which is why many airports have taken to installing solar projects. That’s because when the initial cost of the installing the project is paid off, the airport essentially provides free electricity to itself, disregarding the cost of maintenance.

That scenario, however, is only possible if the airport decides that it would like to privately own the solar operation — something that does not happen widely in the United States due to the substantial cost involved. What happens far more often is that airport solar projects are owned by private companies, which unlike airports, are eligible for tax credits. The airport, in most cases, acts solely as the property owner.

The model is pretty simple. An airport leases its property to a private solar developer, usually for long-term — about 10–30 years — the FAA says. The private business owns all of the electricity produced from the solar panels, and the airport buys that electricity. So while the developer is paying the airport for the land, the airport is also paying the developer for energy. The advantages to this model, according to the FAA, is that it allows the airport to avoid making a huge investment, and lets them have a solar project without having to hire a bunch of solar experts.


In some cases, public electric utilities lease airport land for solar projects and sell electricity back to the airport, much like the private company model. In Florida, for example, Tampa Electric Co. is currently installing 280,000 square feet of solar panels on top of a parking garage at the Tampa International Airport. Construction is estimated to be finished by 2015.

The disadvantage with those models, though, is that the airports still pay for electricity, albeit at less than market rate.

It’s not just money, however, that drives airports to install solar panels at their facilities. The environmental benefits can also be attractive, according to the aviation manager at Denver International Airport, which currently has one of the largest airport solar projects in America.

“We support alternative energy applications at DIA because these projects are good for the environment while positively impacting our bottom line; they are financially sustainable,” DIA aviation manager Kim Day said in a statement. “This airport was built with a goal of being green.”

In fact, the goal of being green can help with the funding of airport solar projects, as well. One of the only airports in the United States that owns its own solar facility is the Albuquerque International Sunport in New Mexico. But it didn’t pay for the panels alone; the FAA granted the airport a combined $3.2 million since 2010 under the agency’s Voluntary Airport Low Emissions (VALE) program, which helps airports maintain air quality standards required under the Clean Air Act.

Through VALE, the FAA estimates that airports are currently reducing ozone emissions by 370 tons per year, the equivalent to removing 20,604 cars and trucks off the road annually. While voluntary, cutting airport emissions through program’s like VALE are critical for reducing the health impacts of pollution. The EPA says ozone emissions can harm human health by triggering chest pain and coughing, and worsening bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.