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Airport looks to sun to trim energy costs, generate revenue

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Nearly 4,400 photovoltaic panels that can generate 1 megawatt of power cover 5 acres at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. The solar farm, built on unusable land, cost $2.5 million. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)

A passenger looking out the window of a jetliner waiting to take off at Columbia Metropolitan Airport might be surprised to see a deep blue sea of photovoltaic panels.

There are 4,368 of these 3-foot-by-6-foot panels covering 5 acres of airport property just off runway 29 near the UPS freight hub.

“This is land that couldn’t be used for anything else,” said Dan Mann, the airport’s executive director.

The land is too close to the runway and not suitable for being farmed because crops would attract wildlife, possibly hindering and endangering airport operations. Also, farm equipment taller than 5 feet could hamper visibility across the airfield.

About 4,400 panels cover 5 acres of airport property just off runway 29 near the UPS freight hub. (Photos/Chuck Crumbo)

“Instead of having to pay to maintain the land and cut the grass, we’re converting unusable land and generating revenue for us,” Mann said.

The $2.5 million, ground-mount solar farm, completed in October, can generate 1 megawatt of electricity, enough juice to power 1,000 homes.

Before the solar farm can be connected to the grid, the airport is waiting for S.C. Electric & Gas Co., which will credit the airport for electricity generated by the solar panels, to finish a study.

“We are in the final phase but not quite there yet,” Mann said. “Looks like end of May or June for the connection.”

According to airport documents, the airport will break even on the project — project cost versus electricity bill savings — in 10 years. After that, the airport would start making money and net about $1.8 million over 20 years, documents showed.

Because the panels are warranted for 25 years, the solar farm would continue to generate revenue past the 20-year mark, Mann said, adding that the airport did not incur any debt to build the project.

The panels were installed by the Tampa, Fla., office of ConEdison Solutions, which also was retained to maintain the solar farm for $14,000 per year, according to airport records.

Before the solar farm could be built, the Federal Aviation Administration required that the airport conduct a “glare study” to ensure that the tower staff and pilots would not be hampered by any glare produced by the photovoltaic panels, Mann said.

A handful of airports have installed solar farms in the United States, and Columbia is the first in South Carolina, Mann said.

Indianapolis International Airport in Indiana has the largest solar farm in the world, with 76,000 photovoltaic solar panels covering 75 acres and producing 15.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually.

The Cayce solar farm is part of the airport’s EcoProject, $60 million worth of capital improvement projects between 2010 and 2018. Eco — an acronym for Enhanced Construction Opportunities — projects are part of the airport’s effort to adopt environmentally friendly programs and meet its obligation to run as economically as possible by lowering energy costs.

The EcoProject programs are expected to deliver more than $300,000 in annual savings, Mann said.

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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