Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport plans to add solar panels to more than a dozen buildings, part of a broader expansion of clean energy as the city of Atlanta tries to wean itself from energy derived from fossil fuels.
The solar push also is part of a years-long effort by the airport to green its operations. Air travel is carbon-intensive and a challenging industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But city officials see added solar as one way to help improve sustainability at the world’s busiest airport.
“Either we can buy fossil fuel energy or we can buy clean energy,” said Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Balram Bheodari. He said the goal is to move toward clean energy, “in line with our sustainability management plan of reducing the airport’s overall carbon footprint.”
The airport is being added to a city contract with Atlanta-based Cherry Street Energy, which installs solar arrays on commercial properties. Cherry Street Energy then sends a bill for the energy produced, similar to a conventional electrical utility. That means instead of the airport paying for the installation of the solar panels, it will pay for the solar energy over time.
“We sell our electricity directly,” said Cherry Street Energy CEO Michael Chanin, who added that his company was founded in 2015 after a state law change allowed for such agreements. “Generally, our rate for the electricity is competitive with the prevailing utility rate.”
Because Cherry Street Energy pays for the solar panel installations, it qualifies for a tax credit of roughly 30%, which in turn reduces the cost of the electricity its customers pay, according to Chanin.
The airport is owned and operated by the city of Atlanta, and the solar installations are part of a broader city initiative toward clean energy. The Atlanta City Council in 2019 passed a resolution to reach 100% “clean energy” by 2035, defined as “energy derived from wind, existing and low-impact hydroelectric, geothermal, biogas and wave technology sources.”
That resolution is not a law however, and the city’s main source of electricity is Georgia Power. Last year, Georgia Power said about 63% of its energy mix comes from fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — with the remainder coming from, nuclear, hydropower and renewables.
Last year, Atlanta joined a coalition of other local governments to argue that regulators at the Georgia Public Service Commission should push Georgia Power to expand its solar and energy efficiency offerings. Ultimately, the commission only signed off on modest changes to the company’s solar programs.
The city of Atlanta also has added solar to a number of its buildings, including fire stations and recreation centers.
According to legislation approved by Atlanta City Council this month, plans are to add solar on as many as 16 buildings around airport grounds over the next few years.
However, the projects will need to go through structural and electrical reviews, including determining whether the roofs can support the load of solar panels.
And, the final designs will be subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, to ensure that glint or glare from the solar panels won’t disrupt the work of air traffic controllers in the tower at Hartsfield-Jackson.
The largest of the airport projects planned is to install solar on a new domestic terminal South parking facility to be constructed as part of the airport’s years-long parking renewal project. The contract includes up to $27.7 million for solar energy on a South economy lot, expected to be completed in 2026.
The other solar installations all come with significantly smaller price tags, ranging from $267,404 for solar energy on a perishables warehouse to $1.6 million for solar on an airfield electrical vault.
Other solar installations will be put on airport cargo buildings, maintenance buildings, fire stations, lighting vaults, a warehouse, a deicing facility and the airport command center.
According to Chanin, the solar panel installations are designed to supply roughly 30% of the energy for a city building, though that can vary. The installations could expand as battery storage technology becomes more cost-effective, and to add electric vehicle charging, he said.
In the city contract, the airport would pay up to $38.3 million for solar energy on the buildings Cherry Street would install solar panels on. Overall, the project would produce a little over 2 megawatts of electricity, according to the company —that’s enough to power hundreds of homes, but still a small fraction of the overall energy use of the airport.
Cherry Street Energy has already installed solar panels for companies at two sites in the Atlanta airport vicinity: At Signature Flight Support, the private aviation terminal on the north side of the airfield at Hartsfield-Jackson, and at Porsche Cars North America’s headquarters next to the airport.
Hartsfield-Jackson has for years pursued ways to operate more sustainably, but has struggled with many of its efforts. Its solar projects have been limited so far: The airport put a solar installation on a taxi hold lot building in 2017.
DHL Express this year put solar panels on a cargo building it is using at the airport.
Overall, the city’s contract with Cherry Street will be worth up to $163.8 million, including the airport as well as the Department of Parks and Recreation, Atlanta Fire Rescue, the Department of Watershed Management and the Department of Enterprise and Asset Management, according to the legislation.
“Initially it was a pilot to try and see, is this a method through which we can achieve these goals and incorporate renewable power?” Chanin said. “It’s proven an opportunity for the city to both incorporate renewable power and create cost predictability in its electricity.”
A note of disclosure
This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/