City Aims To Make Charlotte Airport A Big Player In Solar Energy Production

Nov 22, 2013

When you look out the airplane window as you fly into Charlotte, the trees thin, the Uptown skyline rises into view, and the buildings of West Charlotte grow larger, as your plane drops altitude. The City of Charlotte hopes to add solar panels glinting across the airport’s parking lots and in-between the runways to that view. The city is soliciting bids for an ambitious solar project at the airport.

The city's largest solar project to date, 250 kW, rests on top of the CLT Center.
Credit Ben Bradford / WFAE

The CLT Center conference room filled with about 60 energy developers, all interested in the project—to build solar panels at the airport, on building rooftops, between runways, and on canopies over the parking lots.

“We’ve had a tremendous response to this,” Charlotte energy and sustainability manager Robert Phocas told the group. “Obviously a lot more than we thought we would, which is wonderful.”

The airport will lease the land and get the profits. At more than 128 acres and up to 53 megawatts of power, it easily surpasses the largest solar project the city has previously attempted. Developers and financiers at the meeting said the attraction is as much about recognition as profit.

“It certainly brings a bit of good press for you,” says Mike Whitson, president of Davidson-based PCG Solar.

“It is going to be a signature that the rest of the people who fly in and out of this airport take with them,” says Fran Koster, who was representing the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy. “This is much more than just about energy; this is about branding the city, and that’s one of the reasons there’s so much enthusiasm about it.”

Potential developers would have to clear substantial obstacles, first. Since the project is at the airport, builders will need to make sure panels are not glinting into pilots eyes or interfering with flight plans, and the FAA will need to approve construction. Dust from airport development, city paperwork, and tree ordinances are also concerns. Most of all, prospective bidders worried about Duke Energy. Chris Larsen of solar company QBotix says the utility must buy in.

“I think it’s very ambitious and I’m concerned without some explicit cooperation from the utility there will be some major hurdles that a lot of the developers will not be able to overcome,” Larsen says.

By law, Duke would have to buy the power, but can negotiate the rate for this size project. The deadline for proposals is next month, although it may be extended.