Historically, airports and counties have been at odds as a single entity, but some of these cities, now working together, are opening their bases to solar power.
As one airport near me, in Los Angeles, touts: “This Terminal One makes everything possible.” That terminal houses a new solar farm that’s part of LAX’s growing program to incorporate solar power.
LAX has spent nearly $100 million on solar technology in the last couple of years. It now has around 70 photovoltaic arrays scattered across its perimeter, including multiple ones on runways, at far-flung parts of the airport’s infrastructure and in several terminals, according to Kim Settles, an engineer at LAX who works with the project. The emphasis is on interconnected arrays that, like village walls, can collect solar energy from a wide array of sites and pass it through the airport’s utility system and to the grid. The idea, says Settles, is to maximize solar capacity while not adding congestion to the airport.
“What we’re trying to do is get as many roofs as possible to be solar rooftops. So many rooftops, so small amounts of solar generation,” Settles says.
And, from a solar perspective, LAX and other busy airports are “ecosystems where the bigger players are located, so if you want to go into the solar business, your starting point is already with a very well-developed module supplier and supply chain,” says Anthony Gorenziak, a professor at Southern Methodist University who studies the energy market and strategy.
First Solar makes the panels at the facility near LAX. The company says it’s also selling its technology to other airports, like those at Dallas and Philadelphia.
While the industry isn’t new, Los Angeles’ transformation is fast. The airport’s focus has already grown from solar gardens built with ratepayer money in 2016 to a solar deployment program approved earlier this year by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. And the airport says it plans to install another 250 systems by the end of the year, a move that has gained the sympathy of South Los Angeles and neighboring communities that have seen populations triple since 1990.
The LA County Board of Supervisors approved the solar program with scant discussion, which made some civic leaders nervous.“The project put in front of us at that time without much public outcry and without any opposition…I think, on balance, for what we’re facing now, this is a very promising initiative,” says Supervisor Hilda Solis, who chairs the airport commission. She’s worked on the issue for months now with Atlee Hale, her fellow supervisor.
The prospect of devoting so much county money and effort to solar energy comes as commissioners and the community are still dealing with the scars of the old 1960s-era airport, which used to be known as Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Now the airport, which relocated in 2012, is at the forefront of a metro-area effort to turn its passenger and cargo traffic into a big, thriving and thriving city, according to Solis. Solis expects the solar farms will become a way to accomplish that, both in ensuring the airport is sustainable and bringing new money into a county that needs it.
“It was the largest airport… They were very prosperous, and there was a lot of money around there,” Solis says of her childhood in Pomona. “And it was much less than it is now.”
The county’s proposed $370 million plan calls for the LAX solar farm to be ready next year. Hale expects it will have a ripple effect for nearby communities, including neighborhoods in South Los Angeles and the South Bay, where SunCor Development is currently constructing two other solar projects.
“We believe there’s a huge benefit to the whole community for the airports to be green. Because I think they’re saying to the community, ‘Look, if you look like you’re green, we’re green, too,’” Hale says.
For now, the commissioners are keenly focused on ensuring that the airport’s focus on solar is not at the expense of other priorities: Not adding park space, for example, to accommodate passengers with disabilities. They’re also concerned with developing the land that the airfield occupies, in part by rehabilitating old runways and building new ones.
The supervisors’ solar program is not the only one working to create a green future at a growing number of airports and national terminals. The Federal Aviation Administration is also planning a