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Technology We Should Install Solar Panels on Airport Roofs. Here's Why.

07:35  21 may  2021
07:35  21 may  2021 Source:   popularmechanics.com

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  • Scientists in Australia have determined that solar grids—installed on top of the country's government-owned airports—could annually supply 136,000 homes with power.
  • Because commercial roofs are flat, they're more efficient for solar arrays than angled residential roofs.
  • Australia is a sunny country with great solar potential, but it's possible that the same concept could take off in the U.S., too.

Airports aren't surrounded by trees—they're (mostly) surrounded by wide-open spaces, replete with sunlight. Now imagine those airports' rooftops, bejeweled with solar panel arrays.

This isn't 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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There, scientists have incorporated real-world data into a software program. The results, published in the Journal of Building Engineering, show that if Australia installed solar panels on top of all 21 of its government-owned airports, the country could produce an estimated 466 Gigawatt hours (GWh) of electrical energy each year. That's enough to power about 136,000 homes per year.

"Australia is facing an energy crisis, yet our solar energy resources—such as airport rooftops—are being wasted," Chayn Sun, senior lecturer at RMIT, and one of the scientists involved in the new research, said in a prepared statement. "Harnessing this power source would avoid 63 kilotons of coal being burned in Australia each year, an important step towards a zero-carbon future."

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Scientists studied how they could fit flat airport roofs, seen here at Sydney Airport, with solar panels. © Cameron Spencer - Getty Images Scientists studied how they could fit flat airport roofs, seen here at Sydney Airport, with solar panels.

How did the scientists come up with these figures? First, they combined all the roof real estate data for Australia's 21 federal airports, arriving at a total of 2.61 square kilometers of available space. Then, they compared the amount of energy the country could conceivably generate with solar panels on these commercial roofs, versus the amount of energy currently generated with solar panels in residential areas.

Because residential roofs are usually built at an angle—creating slanted structures that are prone to shadows from trees and other structures—they can be tricky for ample solar collection. Commercial roofs, meanwhile, are usually flat and unobstructed. In fact, the RMIT scientists found solar panels installed on commercial roofs could collect 10 times more energy than those installed on residential roofs.

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What's in this deal for the airports? There's the plentiful energy, of course. This approach could reduce overall operating costs by decreasing an airport's overhead energy cost. Airports are strangely energy-dense in a way very few other places are, crowded with people all day, every day. The solar roofs could also offset a significant amount of airport carbon emissions, which could improve the environmental optics for an industry that emits a lot of greenhouse gases.

Australia is in a special position, as an enormous nation with a relatively small population and a lot of sunshine. Because of that, the country has become a global leader in renewable energy infrastructure, even using it to help stabilize rural grids that previously struggled. Elon Musk has had runaway success there, with storage batteries in South Australia. And the country has so much sun that it's even shipping some off to Singapore.

Using its growing pool of battery farms and microgrids, Australia could store the solar energy generated at airports and tip it back into the grid during outages or at peak usage times. Homeowners with solar panels are, of course, welcome to plug in their setups. But the researchers say large-scale energy demand requires large-scale energy production in the form of larger projects like a hypothetical airport solar grid.

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It'll be trickier to bring this idea to life in the U.S., where nearly half of all Americans believe environmental policymaking does no good or does more harm than good, according to April 2020 data from Pew Research Center.

a person holding a sign: This kind of solar panel creates glare—something airports must avoid. © Bettmann - Getty Images This kind of solar panel creates glare—something airports must avoid.

Wired reports on a few persistent counterarguments against such solar proposals, down to the question of whether or not solar panels could reflect glare into pilots' eyes. (This shouldn't be a problem thanks to new coatings.)

And even though some airports, like Denver International Airport, have already embraced solar panels on the ground, it'll be a costly project to retrofit the panels for old rooftops. Then there's the whole other issue of sunlight: we get a lot less of it in certain parts of the U.S., and in places like Denver, there's snow to think about, which will obstruct the panels.

Australia is poised to make the switch, though, and maybe that sort of success story—and proof of the related economic benefits that come along with it—could sway key stakeholders in the U.S.

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