Making airports into solar farms

Matt Simon writes that airports have lots of open spaces and big buildings that are never in shadow, which would make them perfect places to locate solar panel arrays. It would be much easier and provide a bigger return than an equal area spread out over residential roofs. For example, Denver International Airport has 53 square miles of usable space, enough to provide up to 30% of its annual energy needs and, on sunny days, all of it.

New research out of Australia shows how massively effective it would be to solarize 21 airports in that country. Researchers scanned satellite images of the airports for open roof space, where solar panels best avoid shadows, and found a total of 2.61 square kilometers, or 1 square mile, of usable area. 

For comparison, they also scanned satellite imagery and found 17,000 residential solar panels in the town of Bendigo, just north of Melbourne in southern Australia. The researchers calculated that the airports could potentially produce 10 times the amount of solar energy as those 17,000 residential panels—enough to power 136,000 homes

The associated issue with solar power is the need to store the power to reuse during the time when there is no sunlight. Advances in battery technology are helping to address that.

San Francisco International Airport’s solar panels currently generate 4.6 megawatts, while its peak demand is 55 megawatts. (In contrast to DEN’s wide open spaces, SFO sits on about 8 square miles.) Officials there are currently studying where they might locate more panels to build out a “microgrid,” or a self-sufficient system that would use solar to charge massive batteries. If there’s a blackout, instead of shifting to generators—like SFO currently does—they could switch to backup batteries to electrify essential facilities.

There are some hurdles that need to be overcome with using airports as giant solar farms. They have to be sure that they do not interfere with flights by creating glare for the pilots or disrupt radar and radio communications. But that seems like it should not be a big hurdle.


  1. Matt G says

    Several years ago I read about a city in Holland (Amsterdam itself?) which installed solar panels under bike paths.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Glare -- I don’t see why that should be a big problem. Glare is reflected sunlight, solar panels ideally absorb as much light as possible, not reflect it.

  3. Who Cares says

    What Matt G(#1) talks about was/is a test started in 2014. They put up 70 meters of solar panel under a bike path. The test itself was considered successful in that the test stretch produced more power then expected, and that they discovered some deficiencies in the layer placed over the panels. It completely failed on the cost per kW/h. Average cost per meter of bike path is less then €1000,-, this test cost €41 000,- (expanded test path of 90 meter) to €52 800,- (initial path of 70 meter) per meter. The amount of power generated would cost about €6 000,- to €10 000,- if traditional solar panels were used instead.

    And if we are in the Netherlands they would suggest another place that is easier to convert. Industrial greenhouse horticulture. Even the smallest of these greenhouses is measured in hectares and depending on what is grown between 1/4 and 3/4 of the glass roof can theoretically be replaced by solar panels

  4. Lofty says

    Ketil @5: solar panel glass surfaces need not be mirror finished, a textured non reflective surface is far more efficient. Glass isn’t just made for windows you know.

  5. Ridana says

    Transmission wires? I know nothing about alternatives, but having seen transmission towers marching across open agricultural land, I have to wonder if that’s a good idea next to a major airport. I’m sure the people proposing this have taken this into consideration, I just don’t know the reasons why it wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe the high voltage lines have already been there for years and are fine, I dunno.

  6. John Morales says

    Ridana, how do you imagine airports get electricity?

    (And do you imagine wires are one-way?)

  7. John Morales says

    As far as glare goes, solar rooftop panels are on the roof.

    People on the ground aren’t gonna get any glare

  8. Lofty says

    John Morales @9, solar panels are often mounted at an angle off the zenith you know, easily able to reflect sun glare if they were stupidly constructed with smooth reflective glass covering (which they generally aren’t).

  9. Who Cares says

    The problem with a textured protective layer is that outside of the range/angle that they are meant to gather more sun it can be more reflective. The added problem being that anti reflective coatings don’t work either anymore at that point.
    So the panel ca/will glare away when the sun is low in the sky and thanks to the the textured layer it does so better then without out it.
    This is considered enough of a problem that the US government (through the Sandia National Laboratories) has developed a tool (SGHAT) to model/predict the impact of glare on airports. And one that developers might want to use since there are federal regulations in place about building any form of solar power near an airport.

    link to presentation about this

  10. Who Cares says

    Working (I hope) this time Fixed link to that presentation (or at least the slides).

    @John Morales(#12): thanks for pointing that out.

  11. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    (And do you imagine wires are one-way?)

    The transformers or some other bits of large distribution networks are kind of one way. At least, they aren’t designed to cope well with flow going one direction and then changing to the other direction. Just part of the massive grid upgrade costs to support decentralized but also very interconnected electricity production pipedreams.

  12. John Morales says


    Latest data from the Clean Energy Regulator (CER) shows another record-breaking year for rooftop solar in Australia in 2020. Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, Australia’s rooftop PV market has been remarkably resilient with an additional 2.6 gigawatts (GW) and 333,978 installations added to the grid during the year – both the capacity and installations were around 18 per cent higher than 2019 (2.2GW and 284,000 installations). It is worth nothing [sic] that the final new installed rooftop capacity from 2020 is expected to be even higher than currently reported due to the fact that consumers have up to 12 months in which to register their installation.

    By the end of 2020, an estimated 2.66 million Australian homes and businesses had a rooftop PV system.


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