March 12, 2014

Charlotte Douglas cancels planned airport solar farm

A plan to cover 128 acres at Charlotte Douglas International Airport with solar panels was quietly canceled last month.

A plan to cover 128 acres between runways, building roofs and parking lots with solar panels at Charlotte Douglas International Airport has been quietly canceled after officials decided it could interfere with plans to expand the airport and put tax-exempt bonds at risk.

The proposed solar arrays, capable of generating an estimated 53 megawatts, would have easily ranked among the biggest solar power projects in the state.

But Charlotte Douglas officials decided to withdraw their request for proposals for building the solar farm on Feb. 4. Deputy Interim Aviation Director Jack Christine said the proposed solar panels might have gotten in the way of expanding the airfield’s capacity. Charlotte Douglas is examining whether to build a fourth parallel runway.

“I could end up having to tear (the solar panels) right back out” to make room for construction, said Christine. “That just doesn’t make fiscal sense.”

Christine also said that putting solar panels on top of parking lots might have jeopardized the tax-exempt status of bonds used to pay for airport parking projects. That’s because the panels would be used to sell power to Duke Energy and hopefully make a profit.

“We’re looking to see if putting in solar panels … has taxable implications,” said Christine.

As a city department, Charlotte Douglas issues tax-exempt bonds to finance large projects. That lets the airport borrow money at a lower rate. But such bonds come with stringent conditions about how the money can be spent.

The city may try a different version of the project next year, officials said. But panels on top of parking lots – which made up about 80 percent of the project – are no longer being considered, documents given to prospective bidders stated.

The airport “has decided not to pursue co-locating the panels on existing airport parking deck or surface lots,” according to the documents.

When the project was announced in November, city officials touted it as a way to support both green energy and smart business practices. Robert Phocas, Charlotte’s energy and sustainability manager, said it could “bring us into a whole new ballpark.”

Here’s how the plan would have worked: A private company would have been hired to install solar panels between runways, on top of the airport’s administrative buildings and on canopies over the airport’s long-term and daily north parking lots.

The airport would have leased the land to the developer, with an option for the airport to purchase the solar farm after six years.

The parking lots would have made up by far the biggest part of the airport solar farm, accounting for more than 100 acres and 40.5 megawatts of power generation.

But the parking lots could be particularly hard to build solar panels on, since they would require the developer to build a canopy large enough to cover all of the airport’s surface parking, tall enough to let all vehicles in and strong enough to support a huge solar-panel array.

One developer who had been interested in the solar farm project spoke with the Observer on the condition of anonymity so as to not sour possible future bids with the city. He said the parking lot project would not have been economically feasible unless the airport helped cover the cost of building the canopy. It’s far cheaper to simply install solar panels in open fields.

Christine told the Observer he still thinks the project might be economically feasible. But the airport didn’t actually receive any bids before it canceled the request for proposals, so he couldn’t say for sure.

The airport currently has solar panels on the roof of the CLT Center, its administrative building off Wilkinson Boulevard, and near the fire station on airport property.

Phocas, the Charlotte sustainability manager, told the Observer on Wednesday that he doesn’t see the cancellation as a setback for the city’s plans to pursue more solar energy.

“I do not see it as a blow to the program, just a delay,” Phocas said.

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