Unused airport land such as at O’Hare International Airport might be one option for the placement of alternative energy production systems, including solar panels, windmills and biofuels.

Alternative energy production requires a lot of space with minimal disruption from wildlife, which is already the case for safety reasons at airports across the United States, according to a study published in the most recent issue of Environmental Management.

The total amount of grasslands and open space at airports in the continuous U.S. equals an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, the study said.

“Everyone agrees we need more effort in renewable energy, but we need more land,” said Travis DeVault, a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one of the authors of the study.

O’Hare is already using alternative energy and pursuing options for more sources.  For instance, the airport uses solar power to heat water in an airport fire station, said Tammy Chase, a deputy commissioner of communication with the Chicago Department of Aviation.

“This has been a great success for us,” Chase said.

In November, O’Hare also announced plans to place solar energy collectors on up to 60 acres of land, as well as build an alternative energy fueling station.

The Department of Aviation estimates the solar panels at O’Hare could generate about 37 million kilowatt hours of energy per year, enough to power more than 4,000 homes.

“We would expect that the full development will power up to 12 percent of O’Hare’s electrical need,” Chase said.

DeVault’s study inventoried space at more than 15,000 airports in the U.S., many of which have substantial land buffers for safety and noise reduction purposes.

He suggests putting renewable energy sources in areas that do not interrupt wildlife, agriculture or other conservation initiatives, which is why airports are such a good option.

However, some energy production methods, such as biofuels, need more research before they can be placed on airport grounds.

“It costs a lot of money for airports to maintain turf grass,” he said, and biofuels might be a cost effective and energy friendly alternative.

Turf grass also attracts wildlife such as geese, which are a major threat to wildlife-aircraft collisions.  According to the study, from 1912 to 2008, bird collisions destroyed 108 civil aircrafts.

“It’s about not attracting the wrong type of wildlife,” DeVault said.

One problem with alternative energy production on airport property is the risk of distraction or danger to pilots, particularly with reflection off certain types of solar panels, said Bob Vogl, the president of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association.

He said other places might be even more suitable for renewable energy production, including landfills or industrial spaces, water treatment facilities, near highways and on rooftops of public buildings.

Integrating the issue of renewable energy into existing buildings is one step Vogl particularly emphasized. Some ways buildings can add to their renewable energy usage are installing green roofs, rooftop solar panels (in areas where reflection is not an issue) and small windmills.

“This conserves the needs of that building,” he said, such as heat and air conditioning.

DeVault said some airports are already considering this emphasis.

“Airports are in a unique position to provide energy as long as we can address the issues,” he said. “And we can.”

Medill School of Journalism – Quarter 2

Medill News Service – Medill Reports

*Additionally published at nwi.com

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