Large-Scale Airport Solar Facilities Gaining In Popularity

by Hal Davis
WisDOT Bureau of Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine June/June 2021
Online Issue

The remarkable growth of the solar industry witnessed in the last decade continues to show no sign of slowing down. Fueled by decreasing costs and increasing demand for alternative energy sources, the solar industry grew 43% in 2020 and led all technologies in new electric-generating capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The total solar capacity in the U.S. is currently about 100 gigawatts, but it is projected to surpass 400 gigawatts in the next decade. This means we can all expect to see more solar panels in the future. One place you might start seeing them more frequently is airports.  

For the solar energy industry, airports provide several advantages when it comes to siting new solar facilities. Most airports have an abundance of clear, flat land and may also have existing fences to help secure the solar facility. As an added benefit, airports are often owned by municipalities, which offer solar companies a stable partner and one who might already be motivated to bring renewable energy to their community. 

A solar farm on the airport can provide numerous airport benefits as well. First and foremost, the leasing of otherwise vacant airport land to a solar company can provide a significant and consistent source of revenue. All airports strive for financial self-sustainability, but most are unable to achieve it. The lease revenue generated by a solar farm could help close the gap. An on-airport solar farm can also help reduce an airport’s operational costs by reducing the amount of land the airport must maintain. In some cases, on-site power generation capabilities of a solar farm can also help an airport stay operational during power disruptions elsewhere in the grid. Finally, incorporating green technologies and reducing the airport’s carbon footprint is a growing priority for many airports.  

While there is no denying that solar farms and airports can provide a mutual benefit, it is not always a perfect fit. Airports must first consider and evaluate their unique circumstances and ensure all proper coordination has been completed.

When considering a solar farm on an airport, the first thing to reference is the Airport Layout Plan (ALP). To begin coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the ALP will need to be updated to show the proposed location of the panels. Panels must not be located in safety critical areas, such as existing or future Runway Protection Zones, Runway Object Free Areas, Runway Visibility Zones, or anywhere it may interfere with navigational aids. They must also not conflict with future airport development shown on the ALP.  

Once a suitable location has been found, the FAA will need to conduct a study of the solar facility’s impacts on the surrounding airspace, such as Part 77 imaginary surfaces, instrument procedures, and navigational aids. Fortunately, most solar panel installations have a low profile and rarely pose a hazard due to their height. However, the potential for glint and glare will need to be analyzed closely. Any identified potential for glint or glare which may cause a temporary loss of vision to pilots on arrival or departure or to personnel in air traffic control will need to be corrected before the project can move forward. 

Finally, construction activities will also need to be evaluated for impacts on airport operations, such as access routes and large equipment. In some situations, it may be necessary to temporarily close a runway to facilitate the construction.

In addition to assessing the compatibility of the solar facility, airports which have received federal airport improvement grants are also required to conduct additional coordination with the FAA. The type of coordination needed will depend on how the impacted property was originally acquired and what is being requested. Proposals that involve property purchased with FAA funding will require prior FAA approval. During this approval process, the FAA will review the terms and conditions of the lease and verify that the airport is receiving fair market value compensation. Although it is possible for an airport to sell the land to the solar company, in most cases the FAA prefers that airport land be leased rather than sold so that it provides continuous income for airport purposes and preserves the property for future aviation usage. Additionally, FAA approval of this request will require a corresponding National Environmental Policy Act clearance document. For on-airport solar farms larger than 3 acres, a condensed environmental assessment needs to be completed.  

Fortunately, proposals involving airport property purchased without FAA funding will require far less coordination in most cases. However, any proposal for an on-airport solar facility won’t be reviewed or approved overnight and it is important to manage expectations. Most proposals will take upwards of 12 months or more to fully complete the coordination process with all interested stakeholders. Having a discussion with the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics early in the planning stage is crucial to avoiding unnecessary delays.

Lastly, as more and more solar facilities are constructed, large-scale, off-airport solar facilities may be proposed near airports or along common flight paths. Currently, the FAA does not have any defined thresholds for solar project size, type, or distance from the airport that automatically triggers FAA review. For now, off-airport solar facilities must only comply with the standard FAA notification criteria established under FAR Part 77 that apply to any improvements made near an airport.

For questions about large-scale solar facilities on airports, please contact the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics at (608) 266-3351.

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