Major international airports worldwide serve millions of travelers each year and consume huge amounts of electricity all year round. Due to the complexity of airport operations, a temporary disruption in power supply can snowball into long flight delays and even mass flight cancellations. While major airports have backup power systems on standby, airport authorities are now also looking at renewable energies to further minimize the risk of a sudden power outage.
In December of 2017, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the US state of Georgia suffered an 11-hour long blackout. The cause was a fire that damaged the electricity supply infrastructure of the facility. This power outage resulted in delays and cancellations of more than 1,000 flights as well as costing Delta Air Lines Inc. nearly US$50 million in lost revenue. Delta is the main commercial carrier of the Atlanta hub in the US air traffic network.
The utility company that supplies electricity to the Atlanta Airport also provides a backup power supply system for the facility. However, the December fire occurred underground and spread to a tunnel that contained both the main and backup power cables. The airport was therefore completely cut off from the grid.
Can renewable energies become a new power supply option for airports?
The adoption of renewable energies such as wind and solar has been met with skepticism over their reliability. However, a research report from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) suggests that renewable generation systems such as wind turbines and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels can benefit transportation facilities like airports in several ways. First, renewable generation systems can be installed on site at the airport and directly controlled by the airport authority. Second, renewable systems save electricity and fuel costs for airports. These savings will then pass on to airlines, which are already sensitive to the fluctuations of fuel prices on the international market. On the other hand, airports with high electricity bills will also demand higher takeoff and landing charges for airlines, which will then pass the costs to travelers in the form of higher ticket prices.
The same study from the NAS also compares the feasibility of different renewable energies (e.g. solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower) for producing electricity going to airports. Solar edges out competitors as being the most practical. The open spaces between runways and taxiways are suitable for arrays of solar PV panels.
Another report from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) says that the vacant land that can be used for building solar panel arrays in all of the airports in the US totals 800,000 acres. A solar panel array that stretches 800,000 acres has an estimated generation capacity of 116,000 megawatts, equivalent to the total generation capacity of 100 coal-fired power plants.
In the UK, Gatwick Airport and Birmingham Airport each have 50 kilowatts of solar PV generation installed on their facility grounds. India’s fourth busiest airport –Cochin International Airport – has also installed 13.1 megawatts of solar PV generation and is on the record as the first airport totally powered by solar. As for the US, four major airports have also adopted solar power.
Setting up solar panel arrays near the airport runways has raised some safety concerns. For instance, the reflected light from the solar arrays may interfere with pilots’ visions. Also, solar panels heat up due to prolonged exposure to sunlight and can warm the air that is above the runways. The warm air can disrupt the prevailing wind patterns around the facility, creating difficulties for takeoffs and landings.
To address these issues, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and airport authorities are developing ways to better place the solar panels so that they do not cause problems for pilots. In sum, solar has emerged as a very practical way to supplement the power infrastructure of airports, but installing solar arrays in airports is not simply about putting up panels on any available spaces.
(The above article is an English translation of a Chinese article written by Annie Lin.)