Why airports should consider solar

The carbon footprint of the aviation industry has been a contentious issue for a long time. Offsetting their emissions is no small feat - but tapping into solar energy, a ready-to-use technology, could help pave the way. From meeting sustainability goals and lowering emissions, to reducing operational energy costs and generating revenue from unused land, could solar be the future of airport infrastructure? We take a look at the benefits and opportunities of solar and some of the airports leading the way in harnessing solar energy.

Geoff Dewick, Aviation Director

Airports have the space for solar

Airports take up huge real estate of prime green space. While land often remains unused due to safeguarding the estate there’s a huge opportunity to use this undeveloped land for revenue generation.

Airport buildings, such as terminal and hangars, typically have large flat unobstructed surfaces more suitable for housing solar infrastructure. Using this energy can assist with utilising electric airport vehicles. Another opportunity lies in the roof level of multi-storey car parks, especially if this level is closed for security reasons. Solar canopies at car parks could be integrated with electric vehicle (EV) charging points while all solar installations could complement a battery storage strategy. So solar has significant potential in both international and regional airports.

Airplanes on the tarmac

Lower energy costs and offsetting

A significant case for investing in solar energy is the opportunity to not only supply the airport with the energy it needs, but also connect to the grid and supply others - whether this is for commercial or residential use.

Gearing up to be fully solar-powered could massively reduce overall operating costs for airports and lower their operational carbon emissions. This could start with installing solar infrastructure in individual locations across an estate, such as solar powered lights on the airfield.

And this could eventually culminate in a fully solar operated airport. Chattanooga Airport in Tennessee, USA, became fully solar powered in 2019 and is expected to earn back their investment in less than 20 years[1]. With payback periods like this, airports can eventually feed energy back to the grid. Offsetting carbon emissions and eliminating electricity costs seems like a win-win.



Reducing emissions

The global aviation industry produces around 2.5% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions[2], and air travel is often the main factor increasing an individual’s carbon footprint.

While reducing emissions from air travel is important, it’s hugely complex and unlikely in the short term. But if airports invest in solar energy, this could at least contribute to improving their carbon footprint. Solar energy could help airports decrease their dependency on fossil fuels and therefore decrease their greenhouse gas emissions.



Sunlight hitting panels on solar farm

The airports leading the way in solar

Airports across the globe are increasingly adopting solar power, and some have built on their investment in solar infrastructure over the years and become fully solar powered. Cochin International Airport in Kochi, India, was the first solar-powered airport in the world, with a total output of 18 GWh per year. This allows the airport to be completely reliant on solar energy, feeding back power to the Kerala State Electricity Board grid and buying it back when needed.

Edmonton International Airport, Canada (EIA)[3] is building the world’s largest airport solar panel farm with over 300,000 panels. This will make it completely self-sufficient whilst also powering the local area. Developer, Alpin Sun, predicts that it will offset 106,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

In the past, there have been concerns over the weather negatively impacting solar energy production, particularly in places like Edmonton where snowfall is very high. Despite this, the city also typically gets a lot of sunlight even on winter days so it therefore presents a great opportunity to harness solar energy. To disperse concerns, EIA have stated that the top layer of the solar panels will have a non-adherent coating to prevent snow from sticking to it, as well as East-West panels that move with the sun which will help shift any snow.

In the UK, solar infrastructure has been installed across a number of airports, with plans for roof and ground-mounted solar farms unveiled for many sites.

Mitigating potential barriers

With sufficient analysis in the planning stages, solar systems will be able to blend in seamlessly with airport operations. Successful implementation of solar systems depends on siting studies, including considerations for glint and glare potential, wildlife impacts, system performance, and safety. So what issues can you expect to encounter and how can we overcome them?

  • Initial investment – understanding the financial viability of introducing solar is often the first hurdle. Engaging with an Energy & Utilities Infrastructure team to undertake a business case assessment can help by providing scenarios for various power outputs and advising on grid connections.
  • Location - A key issue in solar development is finding the best location to ensure it does not impede airport operations. It must be an appropriate distance from the runway and adhere to safety and fire measures.
  • Grid interaction – if all the energy produced is consumed on site, you still need to consider the wider grid infrastructure. Energy & Utilities Infrastructure specialists can discuss the operation of the scheme with the network operator and process a formal application.
  • Regulations:
    • Glint and glare – Impact to pilots and air traffic control must be reviewed. Obtaining glint and glare assessments will help you successfully implement solar and bring to light available technologies to assist in mitigating glare.
    • Risk assessment – conducting an environmental risk assessment to evaluate any potential obstacles, interference and safety risks can help you cover all bases during the planning stage.
  • Retrofitting to existing buildings – Structural engineers can advise on the structural capability of existing buildings and/or new building structures and illustrate how solar capacity can be engineered into the project.
  • Wildlife attractants – Implementing measures, such as perches or shade, will help mitigate against creating wildlife attractants.


RPS has over 40 years’ experience working with clients in the aviation sector, providing a unique blend of multi-disciplinary services. Our team will work closely with you to provide the support and advice you need to ensure your solar project achieves its full potential.


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