A new study has found that Australian government-owned airports could generate enough electricity to power 136,000 homes if they had large-scale rooftop solar systems.
Researchers at RMIT University compared the electricity produced by residential solar panels in a regional Australian city to the potential green energy output of 21 leased federal airports.
They found that if large-scale solar panels were installed at airports, they would generate 10 times more electricity than the city’s 17,000 residential panels, while offsetting 151.6 kilotons of greenhouse gases per year.
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 bring us to a zero emission economy, but installing large panels in places like airports would bring us a lot closer,” she said.
“We hope our findings will help guide energy policy, while also informing future research on solar deployment for large buildings.
“There is so much potential to facilitate national economic development while contributing to the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Sun, a geospatial scientist at RMIT’s School of Science, said airports are ideal for solar panels but are not currently being used to their full potential – many airports in Australia lack adequate solar systems.
“Airports benefit from good sun exposure as they are not shaded by tall buildings or trees, making them a great place to harness the sun’s energy,” she said.
“Australia faces an energy crisis, but our solar energy resources – like airport roofs – are wasted.
“Harnessing this energy source would prevent 63 kilotons of coal from being burned in Australia each year, an important step towards a carbon-free future.”
For the study, published in the Journal of Building Engineering, geospatial researchers estimated solar power generation from 17,000 residential solar panels in Bendigo, Victoria, over one year.
Lead author Athenee Teofilo, a master’s student in geospatial science, then mapped the buildings at each federal leased airport – excluding unsuitable structures such as dome and blistered hangars – and identified 2.61 km2 usable space on the roofs.
The researchers determined the optimum tilt angle of the solar panels for each airport, in order to maximize efficiency.
Perth Airport had the greatest potential for power generation; Placing solar panels there could produce nearly twice Bendigo’s solar output, equivalent to the combined output of Adelaide, Sydney, Moorabbin and Townsville airports.
Even Melbourne Airport alone would surpass Bendigo’s annual solar power generation by nearly 12 gigawatt hours per year.
According to the study, airport buildings less suited to solar panels could still be useful for ground-based solar systems.
Sun said the research underscored the need for energy policies to include a plan to install solar panels at airports.
“Based on our analysis of solar radiation, we know that airports with decent solar systems could not only be self-sufficient, but also generate enough electricity to send the excess back to the grid,” she said. .
“We have mapped out federally owned airports, but Australia has over 150 private airfields, which may also have signs installed.
“Australia receives so much solar radiation that every airport in the country would benefit from having the right kind of solar panels installed.
“The same could be said of many airports and large buildings located around the world.”
Sun said panel reflections would not be a problem, as modern solar panels absorb rather than reflect sunlight.
Previous studies have viewed airports as large solar generators, but RMIT research goes further by precisely modeling the use of large-scale systems.
The results could also be extended to assess the solar potential of other sites, such as large commercial buildings, warehouses or distribution centers.