Serena Kim, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, studied 488 public airports in the US and found that 20% of them have adopted solar photovoltaic (PV) over the last decade. Solar photovoltaic, commonly known as solar panels, converts sunlight energy into usable electricity by using semiconducting materials, creating a more sustainable energy source.
During his research, Kim specifically studied how institutional arrangements contributed to an airport’s solar PV deployment. Because of the notable differences between airports of different management styles, he believed them to provide an ideal venue for studying how institutional management affects solar deployment. One of the biggest differences was board membership. For example, Kim noted that more than 80% of general-purpose airport (cities, states, or counties) board members were elected, while only 7% of special-purpose airport (port or airport authorities) board members were elected.
As of 2020, he found that more solar panels were deployed in airports operated by general-purpose governments than airports operated by special-purpose governments. Additionally, Kim found that more PV solar was deployed in professional organizations, but the panel deployment in these organizations depended on airport management. In all, the study found that an airport’s professional organization membership correlates to an increase in airport solar deployment, but special-purpose airports have a higher rate than general-purpose airports.
Denver International Airport
One of the most extensive airports Kim studied was the Denver International Airport, otherwise known as DIA by state residents and DEN by official abbreviations. The reason that Kim chose to study DEN was that it has become one of the largest solar projects in the US. Since 2008, DEN has installed 42,614 solar panels over 56 acres of land.
Being a leading airport that uses solar energy, DEN’s management system is both economically and environmentally sustainable. It reduces DEN’s carbon footprint by operating 10 megawatts solar facilities while allowing the airport to pay less than the average cost for the energy generated from the solar arrays built after 2012.
According to airport officials who participated in the study, DEN’s success at deploying PV solar is largely due to the support from the city government, airport leadership, and its electricity provider Xcel Energy. How DEN operates is that the aviation department works closely with the city’s sustainability department. Additionally, DEN sells its excess electricity back to the local utility through the Xcel Solar Rewards program, and, before any contracts are made, they must be approved by the city council first.
According to Kim, DEN is an example of how successful collaborative partnerships can lead to more PV panel deployments. The reason for this is that all solar arrays at DEN are developed by public-private partnerships, which allows the arrays to be more economically and environmentally sustainable. The private solar companies own and operate the solar systems, DEN executes power purchase agreements, and Xcel Energy offers rebates to offset costs.
In addition to DEN, Kim also studied the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Tallahassee International Airport, and Orlando International Airport.
As the study showed, utilities’ engagement and airport management affect the deployment of on-site PV solar. As a result, airport solar energy is more likely to increase if investor-owned utilities have more resources and education in renewable energy. Kim suggests that policymakers should make strategies and incentives that address resource and information gaps across investor-owned utilities, municipal utilities, and rural electric cooperatives.