Solar Arrays: Owning vs. Leasing

April 19, 2022
Owning your own solar arrays brings benefits leasing to outside partners hinder.
Solar array at Indianapolis International Airport
Solar array at Indianapolis International Airport

Solar power is being embraced at airports across North America as they look for ways to enhance sustainability efforts both environmentally and financially.

The technology behind solar continues to mature, but a lot of options are available to airports looking at implementing a system designed for their facility.

Corey Harper, Aviation Sales Account Manager for Veregy, provides guidance on what airports need to think about before embarking on a solar project or partnering with an area utility.

Net Metering vs Revenue Generating

Solar installations can be view via two basic lenses:

  • Net Metering: power reduction to the airport
  • Revenue Generating: a ground lease of property to a utility

Airports traditionally approached solar installations as revenue generating installations, but Harper said the big drawback is the loss of leasable space. If you lease 400 acres of airport property to a utility for solar panels, the space will be tied up for decades, limiting space for other potential tenants.

“You might make another $200/month so you might make $80,000 off that 400-acre plot of ground. But if you’re spending $80,000 in energy, you could have a solution that pays for itself in a decade,” Harper said. “Then you’re making money on a solar system that takes up less property and still allows for new hangar tenants to come into the land.” 

A roof mounted system or a parking lot system or 5-acre array next to a terminal could offset power costs and save airports as much money as what they would generate in additional revenue from a solar farm for revenue generation. It also avoids the need for a land lease required by the FAA.

If an airport owns a solar installation and is using the power, that’s considered an aviation function, Harper said. That means less regulatory hurdles and airport needs to clear for a revenue generating project.

The FAA updated regulations on new solar installation regulations in August. Glare studies are required for all installations, but if it’s a non-towered airport the airport is the one who can author the letter that glare has been reviewed and it’s concurrent. The glare study still goes to the FAA for review at towered airports.

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at large revenue generating solar product, just understand that you’re tying up that ground for 30 years,” Harper said.

The Federal Infrastructure Bill Changes Solar Conversation

The FAA must allow funding for sustainability, energy efficiency and resiliency-related projects due to the language of the bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed into law. This gives more consideration to projects promoting these efforts under the $20 billion allotted to airports than standard AIP funding.

“We see it as an opportunity for airports to broaden their horizons and look at their infrastructure and projects that may not have been typically looked at before,” Harper said. “But if they’re not careful, they could down a path of getting a straight solar contract that’s going to get someone to go out and put in a solar panel that only last about two years.”

Airports can pursue low interest loans or bonding along with grant programs and power purchase agreements (PPA). Under a PPA, a third party comes in, creates the development and sells the airport the power. The PPA develops the project, finances it and sells it to the airport at a KwH rate. This system is only available in deregulated states.  

Some will also finance solar installations as a savings and open up federal tax credits normally not available to an airport.

“It doesn’t always need to be paid out of capital,” Harper said. “Everyone thinks of these as capital projects, but they’re not. They’re operational projects. They’re paid for from your operating budget and they’re paid for by the savings you’re getting from the projects.”

Not All Solar Technology is Equal

Solar panels are a long-term energy solution for an airport, so Harper said you need to think long-term.

Solar panels are Bloomberg rated. Tier 1 panels have warranties of approximately 30 years. Tier 2 and Tier 3 don’t offer as long of a warranty and can see varying degrees of quality. An airport needs durable panels that pass an FAA glare test.

“The price comes down, but the crystalines aren’t as efficient, they’re not as smooth and uniform, you might get 5-10 years of production warranty,” Harper said. “When you get into Tier 3, you’re getting even less than 5-year production warranties.”

A Tier 1 product will cost about 30 percent more upfront, but the long-term maintenance savings will make up the difference.

“If someone comes in and offers you a very low cheap cost on a solar array, but then says they’ll do service on it at time and material, I’d be cautious about that because there’s a reason why they’re doing that,” Harper said. “They’re going to get the lowest upfront cost, but then they’re going to make their revenue on the back end on a time and material type system.”

Alternative bidding is a critical path forward for solar installation. Every state has a program designed for guaranteed energy savings as a qualification process. This allows airports to pick based on longevity instead of low-quality solutions based solely on price.

Solar projects don’t have detail specifications under the FAA AIP program. If you install a 400Kw system using third-tier products because it was bid simply on price, Harper warns it could be “a paper weight in two years.”   

“There are solar companies out there that will give us 30-year warranties on the panels,” he said. “And then we see other ones that when they submit RFPs they’re just asking for a 1-year warranty.”

Many states have certified energy service company registration, which proves a resource for airports looking for vetted contractors who can provide guaranteed energy savings contract (GESC). Harper said a qualified team isn’t just installers, but those doing service and measurement and verification (M&V). 

“They’re qualified for doing work on an airport and there’s a big difference between doing work on an airport and doing work out in the community,” he said. “The FAA regulations, the terms, the policies, complying with the airport layout plan. Finding someone that has aviation experience is critical for an airport. It’s not the same as doing work off in the community.”