Airports eyed as sites for alternative energy production

By Robbie Webber

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FAA, and Mississippi State University examines the use of airports and surrounding areas as ideal locations for the production of alternative energy. Biofuel production and solar arrays seem especially suited to these areas, since they are often open grasslands.

As noted in the report, “Ostensibly, ideal locations for alternative energy production would contain large expanses of idle land, harbor relatively little wildlife (i.e., vertebrates), be mostly unsuitable for conservation initiatives, and not compete with human food production.”

Because FAA regulations limit the use of lands surrounding airports, they usually meet the above criteria. Wildlife is actually considered a hazard, rather than a benefit, around airports, and there are few, if any, buildings. In urging study of the potential for energy production in these areas, government officials recognized that this land is mostly going to waste, yet has a great potential to help increase energy production. “Airports offer one of the few land holdings where reductions in wildlife abundance and habitat quality are necessary and socially acceptable, and where regulations discourage traditional commodity production,” wrote the authors.

Several airports already use solar arrays, including Denver, Indianapolis, FedEx’s hub in Oakland, San Francisco, and the largest at an airport in the U.S., Nellis Air Force Base. Although generally installed to offset electricity costs at the airports themselves, the arrays often produce surplus energy, which is fed back into the grid. Currently, these installations occupy a fraction of the available open land at the airports. Since airports are normally adjacent to urban centers, which simplifies connecting to the grid, larger installations could meet a greater percentage of nearby cities’ electrical needs.

The initial concern that the reflection or glare off the solar panels would be a hazard to pilots has proven to be unfounded. Solar panels are designed to absorb, rather than reflect light, and research has shown that they have a reflectivity less than water or window glass.

While solar energy production has made at least some headway, there is as yet no biofuel production at U.S. airports. One reason is the FAA restriction on uses that are attractive to wildlife. Even so, some airports rent their lands for the production of crops, especially wheat and corn, that are known wildlife attractants. And even the existing turf grass or open grasslands that currently predominate at airports are attractive to geese, gulls, and starlings, among the most problematic wildlife for aircraft. So it could be argued that biofuel production would have minimal affect on wildlife attraction, and most biofuel production requires less mowing and other care than existing turf grass or grasslands. In addition, biofuels can produce revenue instead of maintenance costs.

Although the government report mentions the possibility of wind energy development at airports, the authors also discuss why that is considerably more problematic. Turbines are tall, and the spinning blades can interfere with both airborne and ground-based radar. However, the authors do not entirely write off wind energy production at airports, but allow that new technologies will be needed to make it practical and safe.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI. She can be reached at RWebber@ssti.us.