Have you ever stared out of your airplane window during takeoff? You’re most likely faced with the acres of clear land surrounding the runway or the expansive roofs of various airport terminals. Just imagine the power that could be gained if all of that empty space were used for renewable energy purposes.
This vision is becoming a reality at major airports in the U.S. and around the globe as the cost of solar PV systems drop and incentives increase. Solar energy systems are increasingly being installed on the roofs of airport terminals and parking garages, as well as on the land surrounding tarmacs. This trend presents a unique usage opportunity for copper, which is required for solar technology to operate. PV systems are copper-intensive, in part because sunshine is dispersed over a wide area and because the system needs to be connected to the larger electrical grid. Copper can also be used to drive the motors that tilt the solar panels toward the sun. In fact, renewable energy systems use up to five times more copper than traditional electrical generation.
The Copper Development Association (CDA), a U.S-based, not-for-profit association of the North American copper industry, recently completed a case study examining the rise of solar PV systems at airports worldwide and its potential impact on copper usage. The study, Solar Energy Lifts Off at Airports Around the Globe, estimates that solar energy technology uses between three and six tons of copper for every megawatt of energy generated. Copper’s durability and efficiency keep these systems running reliably and at higher efficiencies.
The combination of airport environments and solar projects is an obvious match. The land surrounding airports is typically unusable because of noise from low-flying aircraft. When solar panels are installed, the airport can serve as a nearby energy customer itself. In other examples found in the study, the solar energy systems installed at large airports are used to power nearby cities where demand is high.
The San Diego International Airport is currently installing a 5.5-MWp solar PV system, with more than 3 MWp currently operational. According to CDA’s case study, the system is expected to generate 9,200 MWh of electricity in its first year of full operation. That’s enough to power an estimated 10 to 13 percent of the airport’s energy needs.
Similarly, India’s fourth-busiest airport — Cochin International Airport — has installed a 1.1-MWp PV plant on the roof of one of its terminals and a larger 12-MWp plant on the surrounding land. The airport, which serves more than five million people each year, produces enough solar energy each year to completely meet its power requirements. Other examples of solar-powered airports analyzed in CDA’s study are found in Florida, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Africa and the Caribbean.
According to the new Part 139 Airport Certification Status List (ACSL) and related data from the FAA, there are 500 airports in the U.S. that qualify as class one through five, based on the number of seats in the aircraft they are designed to serve. If an average of 2 MWp of solar energy capacity were installed at each of these 500 airports, the study found, the overall gain in solar energy capacity would be one gigawatt. That energy could power 750,000 homes, and the infrastructure needed to support that estimate could be installed in the U.S. in a relatively short period of time. With the estimated copper usage of three to six tons of copper per megawatt of solar energy, the copper usage for that one gigawatt of solar capacity would range from about 3,000 to 6,000 tons based on how the solar arrays are designed. That’s a lot of copper!
As solar PV systems become easier to install and more affordable, airports and airfields around the world are obvious choices for installation. The copper used in these systems is not consumed, but is a reusable resource that can be recycled after the life cycle of the solar array. This further contributes to the sustainability of solar airport projects. Not only do these installations offer a new opportunity for copper, they provide an opportunity for the United States and other countries to easily increase their use of renewable energy and to help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Images: The St. Paul Airport.