Solar Panels on Airport Roofs

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  • Scientists in Australia have found that solar grids installed at the country’s state airports can provide electricity to 136,000 households annually.
  • Because commercial roofs are flat, they are more efficient for solar systems than angled residential roofs.
  • Australia is a sunny country with great solar potential, but it is possible that the same concept will catch on in the US.

    Airports are not surrounded by trees – they are (mostly) surrounded by spacious spaces that are full of sunlight. Now imagine the roofs of these airports adorned with solar panels.

    This is not a fantasy vision of a green tech future, but the subject of new research at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University).

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    Scientists there have integrated real data into a software program. The results, published in the Journal of Building Engineering, show that if Australia installed solar panels at all 21 state-owned airports, it could produce an estimated 466 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electrical energy each year. That is enough to supply around 136,000 households with electricity per year.

    “Australia is facing an energy crisis, but our solar energy resources – such as the roofs of airports – are being wasted,” said Chayn Sun, a senior lecturer at RMIT and one of the scientists involved in the new research, in a prepared statement. “Using this power source would avoid 63 kilotons of coal being burned each year in Australia. This is an important step towards a carbon-free future.”

    Aerial views of Sydney as Australia see a steady decline in new coronavirus cases

    Scientists were investigating how to equip flat airport roofs, which can be seen here at Sydney Airport, with solar panels.

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    How did the scientists come up with these numbers? First, they combined all rooftop real estate data for the 21 Australian federal airports and reached a total area of ​​2.61 square kilometers. Then they compared the amount of energy the country could potentially produce from solar panels on these commercial roofs to the amount of energy currently produced from solar panels in residential areas.

    Because residential roofs are typically built at an angle and create sloping structures that are exposed to shade from trees and other structures, they can be difficult for adequate solar collection. Commercial roofs are usually flat and free. In fact, the RMIT scientists found that solar panels installed on commercial roofs can collect ten times more energy than those installed on residential roofs.

    What is in this offer for the airports? There is of course the abundant energy. This approach could lower the total cost of ownership by lowering an airport’s overhead costs. Airports are strangely energy dense, as are very few other places that are overcrowded with people all day long. The solar roofs could also offset a significant portion of the CO2 emissions from airports, which could improve the environmental look for an industry that emits a lot of greenhouse gases.

    Australia has a special position as a huge nation with a relatively small population and lots of sunshine. For this reason, the country has developed into one of the world’s leading providers of infrastructure for renewable energies and even helped to stabilize the previously difficult rural grids. Elon Musk got out of control there with storage batteries in South Australia. And the country has so much sun that it even ships some to Singapore.

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    With its growing pool of battery farms and microgrids, Australia could store the solar energy generated at airports and feed it back into the grid in the event of failures or peak load times. Homeowners with solar panels are of course welcome to make their settings. However, the researchers say that a large demand for energy requires a large amount of energy to be generated in the form of larger projects such as a hypothetical solar grid at the airport.

    According to April 2020 data from the Pew Research Center, this idea will be more difficult to bring to life in the United States, where nearly half of Americans believe environmental policy is no good or does more harm than good.

    Scientist checks solar panels

    This type of solar panel creates glare – something airports need to avoid.

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    Wired reports on some persistent counter arguments against such solar proposals, including the question of whether or not solar modules could reflect glare in the pilots’ eyes. (This shouldn’t be a problem thanks to new coatings.)

    And while some airports, like Denver International Airport, have already implemented solar panels on-site, retrofitting the modules for old roofs will be an expensive project. Then there is the very different problem with sunlight: in certain parts of the US we get a lot less of it, and in places like Denver there is snow to think about which will clog the panels.

    Australia is poised to make the switch, however, and perhaps that kind of track record – and the evidence of the economic benefits that come with it – could sway key US stakeholders

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