What happens when airport and solar farm developers meet?


In 10 years, a family of wealthy investors hopes to build a $1 billion solar farm in an inhospitable desert location in Arizona. And no, this isn’t real. It’s a fantasy developed by a Dallas oil tycoon and other Dallas-area venture capitalists, and their fossil fuel interests would not be opposed by the would-be landowner. But they need a spot in the desert.

Thanks to a new airport feature called the Great Room, a project of Southwest Airlines and its parent company, AirTran Airways, Sunol International Airport can make room for the farm. This is the latest in a series of steps taken by Southwest and AirTran to ease tensions between many airports that sought new aviation uses and solar farmers who want to grow agricultural crops.

The Great Room is a massive custom-built structure that converts the airport into an immense “aerial green house.” South Texas sun beams flood the Great Room with rays, turning it into a photovoltaic power plant powered by the rooftop solar panels that produce much of the energy for the airport’s power system. The panels give the airport generation capacity equal to that of 20 conventional power plants.

Sunol, about an hour north of San Antonio, aims to become one of the top 10 solar-producing airports in the country, according to Chris Hill, Southwest’s managing director of regional initiatives. And despite the huge investments already made in it, that is still in the planning stages.

“We are in the embryonic stages of figuring out how we would deploy this and we are just getting started,” Hill said.

Southwest’s investment of $80 million has so far paid for the design and construction of the Great Room, as well as a solar farm on a nearby farm owned by AirTran, which Southwest bought in 2011 for $1.34 billion.

Southwest and AirTran have talked to engineers who helped design the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup of the long-abandoned Wabash River nuclear waste site in Columbus, Ohio, Hill said. In that case, a toxic sinkhole was discovered beneath the river, and is known to produce radioactive sludge.

AirTran and Southwest have also had talks with officials who worked on the airport expansion project being undertaken by the Federal Aviation Administration in Virginia, Hill said. Airport expansion also represents a way to provide needed jobs and benefits to workers in the area, but the FAA program is still in its early stages.

Southwest has already decided to use the Great Room’s solar panels to generate electricity when it is hot outside, and cool it off with cooling towers, Hill said. The panels and cooling equipment will produce enough power for the airport, and would increase the airport’s energy capacity by about 90 percent, the company said.

The process of how the airport actually reaches that level of energy generation, however, is a work in progress. The Great Room generates power as sunlight falls on the solar panels and returns to the roof, where it will be converted to electricity. Officials want to analyze how that efficiency will work under different weather conditions.

It is important to avoid “heat loss” in the process, Hill said. That’s what happens when you put a huge amount of heat into a large space.

Hill hopes that as Southwest designs and implements the system, the Great Room can be used as a new way of thinking about all kinds of transportation to airports. It could run solar panels on a plane taking off from the airport, instead of requiring crews to take showers before boarding, Hill said. “This is not limited to airlines,” he said.

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