- Associated Press - Sunday, March 23, 2014

KENNER, La. (AP) - The sweeping curves and glass walls of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport’s planned new terminal building have defined that project since the design was released last month, but the futuristic architecture is not the only forward-looking aspect of the project.

Airport officials say they are also embarking on an ambitious plan: harnessing enough solar energy to fully power the airport, allowing it to operate independently most of the time, and especially when disaster strikes.

The solar proposal is still in its early stages but is included in the official cost projections for the $826 million airport revamp, which includes the new $650 million terminal on the north side of the property, a hotel and a new Interstate 10 flyover ramp. If it happens, it would apparently make Armstrong the only airport in the country capable of running on self-generated solar power.

“Once in place it would make us a zero-grid operation, where we’re not dependent on outside generation,” Director of Aviation Iftikar Ahmad said.

Initial plans call for installing enough solar panels to generate roughly 10 megawatts of power, enough to provide energy for about 1,500 homes.

A project that size would be one of the largest in the country. In fact, it could be unique in the United States, airport officials said, for even though other airports already have large solar projects, those are designed to feed electricity back into the general power grid or else to account for only a portion of the airports’ power needs.

Armstrong’s solar project is expected to cost roughly $85 million and would be entirely on the 2.5 square miles of airport property - and not on surrounding parcels purchased under a plan to mitigate noise complaints - though the exact size of the project, the placement of the panels and its cost are all still being reviewed, Ahmad said.

The purpose of the proposal is twofold: giving the airport an emergency power supply to get it back up and running in the wake of a disaster and reducing the millions of dollars the airport spends each year on electricity.

“During a disaster we become one of the major points of evacuation, and then during recovery we need to get the people back in, together with all the help we can to help our region to recover,” Ahmad said. “It would be in the public interest to have an alternative power source so we can have terminal operations.”

Solar projects have become increasingly common at airports in recent years, with some small installations coming from a Federal Aviation Administration program aimed at reducing emissions. Larger projects have typically been built by contractors who lease land at the facilities to sell power back to either the airport or the local utility company.

That’s the case with both Indianapolis International Airport and Denver International Airport, the two largest airport solar projects in the country.

The Indianapolis project, started in 2012, now generates about 12.5 megawatts of electricity, with another phase planned in the near future. The project is run by private companies that lease unused airport land and sell the electricity back to the local utility, Indianapolis airport spokesman Carlo Bertolini said.

“This supports symbolically and literally the sustainability commitment that we’ve tried to pursue here,” Bertolini said. “It’s nice having it at the front door of the city, so to speak: The first thing visitors see is the solar farm.”

Denver’s project, which will provide 10 megawatts when a fourth phase is completed this year, is more directly tied to the airport itself. The power produced by panels scattered around the more than 50-square-mile site goes directly back to the airport, spokesman Heath Montgomery said.

While Armstrong Airport would likely still need to buy some electricity from Entergy at times of peak demand, its plan calls for it to be essentially self-sustaining, Ahmad said.

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