OPINION: Airport example shows there are still big wins in solar PV

Michael Watson, chairman of Pager Power, argues that the UK is missing some big wins on solar PV. Airports are a good example

UK airports have huge amounts of land, most of which is grass. Most airport operators could install enough solar PV to offset their carbon emissions completely – but they generally won’t, because of concerns of stifled profit growth.

By way of example, Edinburgh airport emitted 9,653t of CO2 in 2014 as a result of its use of electricity, gas and vehicles. This could be offset by a 30MW solar plant covering 60Ha – around one sixth of the airport’s land. The airport currently has no plans for large on-site PV.

The UK has 168 licensed civil and military aerodromes, with a total estimated land area of 42,000Ha. Installing solar PV on one sixth of this land would deliver approximately 3.5GW of additional solar PV generating capacity – equivalent to a quarter of the UK’s current solar generating capacity of 12.8GW.

Due to the way electricity is bought and sold, power generated where it is consumed is usually worth twice that sold to the grid, because a large portion of the cost is composed of transmission and distribution charges. Schemes will be most profitable when sized so that peak solar PV generation matches the airport’s minimum daytime electricity demand. The most profitable size will typically be less than a third of the size required for an airport to become carbon neutral.

If 3.5GW of solar PV were to be installed, the combined value of electricity generation would be in the region of £230 million per year across all UK aerodromes.

If large scale implementation is to take place it will be driven by planning, corporate social responsibility and government requirements.

There are a number of factors that make solar development on aerodromes more complicated than typical off site developments. These include:

  • Access. Airports need to control airside access and to keep contractors clear of aircraft and other vehicles
  • Expansion. Land that is unused today may well be earmarked for other uses
  • Glint and glare. Direct solar reflections from solar panels can adversely affect pilots and air traffic controllers

But these issues can all be addressed, realising significant potential for airport solar PV development.

New ways of building solar PV schemes will have to be developed that consider:

  • Mobility. Systems may have to be moved as land-use requirements change. Today’s grassy area may be a car park in 10 years’ time.
  • Night time maintenance. Airports tend to cease or reduce operations at night. In reality this will be the best time to maintain solar systems.
  • Glare reduction. New surface types, panel alignment regimes and surface coatings will be required to reduce solar glare to an acceptable level.

Cochin airport in Kerala, India is the first to become carbon neutral, offsetting its own energy consumption from on-site PV generation. There are no insurmountable technical barriers to UK airports becoming carbon neutral. With a genuine commitment from airport owners and government policy UK carbon neutral airports could become a reality.

First published in the April 2018 issue of New Power Report

Further reading:

Train ‘third rail’ an ideal client for solar PV, says new report

Octopus Investments raises extra £80m to refinance solar assets

KiWi Power financing behind-the-meter storage, seeks more sites

Triodos loans release funding for new solar PV

1 comment for “OPINION: Airport example shows there are still big wins in solar PV

  1. April 20, 2018 at 11:20 AM

    £230 million income for 3 GW of installed solar pv works out at about £75/MWh to come out of the pockets of the bill-paying householder.

    Assuming all of this profitable income helps reduce flight ticket prices, it’s a great scheme for those airline travellers with solar pv on their roofs. In fact they may just make/save enough to afford to fly on another overseas holiday every year.

    Meanwhile, for the poorer end of society, who can’t afford to invest in solar pv or fly on overseas holidays, there’ll be a few more deaths among the sick and elderly next winter. But Hey! that’s the way the cookie crumbles – ludicrously expensive solar pv technology needs support from everyone, to ‘save the planet’.

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