Cover Story: Charlotte Airport catching rays

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - On a day like today the last thing you're thinking about is solar power.  And the last place you'd expect it is the airport.

But your local airport isn't just a place to catch a plane.  They're catching rays.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport has found a good use for those old abandoned big box stores we complain about.

The airport needed a new roof and now it saw the possibilities.

What do they say?  The sky's the limit?

Power.  We all need it.  We all use it.  And we'd like to ween ourselves off of power plants that pollute.

Now at Charlotte's Airport at least, the skies hold some hope.

"On the roof of this? This building here."

Aviation Director Jerry Orr showed us the Airport's latest venture.  An abandoned big box it purchased several years ago to house offices and maintenance operations has been turned into one and a quarter million dollar solar farm.

"We wanted to do something at a manageable scale first to see if we could make it worth before we jumped in head first," said Orr.

The building on Wilkinson Boulevard needed a new roof.

So the airport made a unique business arrangement with Charlotte energy developer NARENCO.  NARENCO fixed the roof and put in 1,330 solar panels.  NARENCO paid for the panels, owns and maintains them.  And the Airport leases it from NARENCO and sells the electricity to Duke Energy.

"Not everybody's seen a system of this size."

Keith Davis, project manager for NARENCO, told us it's the biggest solar project on a city-owned building in Mecklenburg county.

When the sun's shining full-bore the solar farm produces enough energy to power 60 homes or one-third of the power needs of the Airport operations building.

"Every bit of this electricity flows back into their transformer that feeds this building and is metered separately from the building," said Davis.

Even on a cloudy day like today it's producing energy.  Davis showed us the meter.  Output 83 kilowatts.

The panels are able to withstand 3-quarter in hail.  And the price tag to put in all the infrastructure has come down more than half.

"And I see that really growing tremendously in the next 5-to-10 years and well beyond. The sky is the limit? It is indeed. Very much so," said NARENCO's Davis.

The airport has tons of buildings and acres of land and if all goes well will expand and silence the skeptics.

Said airport director Jerry Orr, "Anything you do isn't common place there are skeptics.. people waiting in line to say I told you so. That's why you do things on a small scale so if you fail miserably you can cover it up."

Right now the Airport's not making money on the solar venture but Orr told us they've done it in a way that the bottom line isn't much higher than what it would have them cost anyway.

And they are helping the environment and doing the right thing.

How much have costs come down?

In the last three years it's gone from 10-to-11 dollars a watt installed (how they measure it) to three dollars a watt installed.

Charlotte Airport's solar farm went live December 29.

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