Airports Could Generate Enough Solar Energy to Power a City

New research shows placing solar panels on the roofs of Australian airport buildings could be an efficient step towards net zero emissions.

Australian airports are ideal hosts for large-scale solar installations.

A new study has found Australia’s government-owned airports could produce enough electricity to power 136,000 homes, if they had large-scale rooftop solar systems installed.

Researchers at RMIT University compared electricity generated by residential solar panels in a regional city to the potential green energy production of 21 leased federal airports.

They found if large-scale solar panels were installed at the airports, they would generate 10 times more electricity than the city’s 17,000 residential panels, while offsetting 151.6 kilotons of greenhouse gasses annually.

Researcher Dr. Chayn Sun said the analysis showed the value of focusing renewable energy efforts on large centralized rooftop solar systems.

“We can’t rely on small residential solar panels to get us to a zero-emission economy but installing large panels at locations like airports would get us a lot closer,” she said.

“We hope our results will help guide energy policy, while informing future research in solar deployment for large buildings.

“There’s so much potential to facilitate national economic development while contributing towards greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.”

Map showing the location of Australia’s leased federal airports. Credit: RMIT University

Sun, a geospatial scientist in RMIT’s School of Science, said airports were ideal for solar panels but were not currently being used to their full potential – many Australian airports are without adequate solar systems.

“Airports get good sun exposure because they’re not shaded by tall buildings or trees, making them a perfect spot to harness the sun’s energy,” she said.

“Australia is facing an energy crisis, yet our solar energy resources – such as airport rooftops – are being wasted.

“Harnessing this power source would avoid 63 kilotons of coal being burned in Australia each year, an important step towards a zero-carbon future.”

For the study, published in The Journal of Building Engineering, geospatial researchers estimated the solar electricity generated from 17,000 residential solar panels in Bendigo, Victoria, over one year.

Lead author Athenee Teofilo, a Master of Geospatial Science student, then mapped the buildings in every leased federal airport – excluding unsuitable structures like dome and blister-type hangars – and identified 2.61km2 of usable rooftop space.

Researchers determined the optimum tilt angle for the solar arrays for each airport, to maximize efficiency.

Perth Airport had most energy-generating potential; placing solar panels there could produce almost twice the solar output of Bendigo, equal to the combined production from Adelaide, Sydney, Moorabbin, and Townsville airports.

Even Melbourne Airport alone would outperform Bendigo’s annual solar electricity production by almost 12 gigawatt hours a year.

Comparison of the annual estimated GHG offset, estimated electricity production and solar PV array areas. Credit: RMIT University

Airport buildings less suited to solar panels, like those at Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, could still be useful for ground-mounted solar systems, the study found.

Sun said the research underlined the necessity for energy policies to include a plan for installing solar panels at airports.

“Based on our solar radiation analysis, we know airports with decent solar systems could not only be self-sufficient but would generate enough electricity to send the excess back into the grid,” she said.

“We mapped airports owned by the federal government, but Australia has more than 150 privately-owned airfields, which could also have panels installed.

“Australia received so much solar radiation, every airport in the country would benefit from having the right type of solar panels installed.”

Sun said reflections from the panels would not be a problem, as modern solar arrays absorb rather than reflect sunlight.

Previous studies have deemed airports as great solar generators but the RMIT research goes further by precisely modeling the use of large-scale systems.

The findings could also be extended to assess the solar potential of other sites, such as large commercial buildings, warehouses, or distribution centers.

Reference: “Investigating potential rooftop solar energy generated by Leased Federal Airports in Australia: Framework and implications” by Athenee Teofilo, Qian (Chayn) Sun Dr PhD, Nenad Radosevic, Yaguang Tao, Jerome Iringan and Chengyang Liu, 15 March 2021, Journal of Building Engineering.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jobe.2021.102390

EnergyRMIT UniversitySolar Energy
Comments ( 4 )
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  • xABBAAA

    … Australia should get most of its electricity from the Sun, because it so sunny…

  • Clyde Spencer

    The thing about energy needs is that industrial and commercial demands are greatest when the sun is shining. However, residential needs are greatest when the sun isn’t shining!

    The metric of “136,000 homes” is inappropriate and misleading.

    The optimum tilt angle varies with the seasons and time of day. Obviously, what was used for calculations was a compromise.

  • Guarnica Home

    Whatever happened to “solar freakin roadways”? It’s not either or, the govt needs to install solar on every roof that can take it. Then govt loans to replace all fossil fuel transport with electric. Pollution solved and everyone employed doing the upgrades.

  • JGrauman

    What do we do with all these panels when they need to be replaced?