The new prominent solar panels were built on unused land surrounding the Fresno-Yosemite International airport. They came online last month, with a capacity of 2 MW.  (Source: ABC)

With 7 football fields worth of solar power capacity, FYI is finding itself gaining national attention as the "greenest" airport. Many airports are considering in adopting similar measures.  (Source: ABC)
New airport uses solar to turn idle land productive

Consumer solar installation is booming.  With many homeowners eager to take advantage of lower prices thanks to smarter production and installation, as well as tax breaks offered to ease installation costs, the home installation business is seeing rapid growth.  This trend is especially apparent in California.  With San Francisco's new solar initiatives, the city is expected to experience a strong influx of solar growth.

However, California's solar gains aren't limited merely to the consumer sector.  Private businesses are also flocking to solar power.  Among these new adopters is Fresno-Yosemite International (FYI).  The airport, which served 1.38 million passengers last year, is situated on 2,150 acres and mostly deals in private air traffic. 

The airport had a problem.  A large amount of the land around it was sitting idle and undeveloped while the airport was struggling to deal with soaring energy costs.  Meanwhile, the airport was launching a trial program to deploy solar panels on the roof of an expansion building which was to house rental car services.

Suddenly the idea clicked -- solar power could fuel the airport's power needs.  Not stopping with the rooftops, FYI expanded its solar offerings, placing panels over the equivalent of seven football fields worth of undeveloped land.  Now, with its construction complete for the time being, finishing last month, FYI has found itself in a new position -- green leader.

Becoming the leading green airport was surprisingly common sense, according to local government officials.  Alan Autry, Fresno Mayor states, "So you take land that's basically idle and useless and turning it into 11-million dollars worth of taxpayer's savings, that's a good day for Fresno."

The transformation yielded a 2 MW solar facility which was finally put to use last month.  Now it powers the airport's lighting and the communications tower.  While modest compared to some dedicated solar plants, the FYI's installation is a perfect example of a business putting solar to use.  Says Russ Widmar, FYI Aviation Director, "This will for us produce about 40-percent of our annual electrical requirement.  Just on the air quality side, 170,000 barrels of fossil fuel a year that we will not use."

The city, which encouraged the effort, donated 20 unused acres to the cause, but did not pay any money to help set up the project, feeling that existing tax subsidies provided enough support.  Without handouts the airport was able to set up clever business deals to make the project financially viable.

Frank Smith, Worldwater and Solar CEO, the company handling the installation explains, "We were paid, Worldwater and Solar Technologies, 16-million dollars but we weren't paid by the airport. We were paid by a third party financial firm. They will then sell the power to the airport at a fixed rate for the next 20 years."

During the twenty years fossil fuel costs will likely continue to rise, but the cost of the solar power won't.  Further, the project efforts were buoyed by generous support from corporate partner Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), who donated $5.5M USD in rebates to the project to help promote an environmentally friendly image.

Greg Pruett, PG&E Corporate Relations VP, states, "It is really a pioneering, cutting-edge project. It puts really Fresno out in front of most other municipalities in being leading in embracing renewables."

The Mayor Autry also adds that the plant is not just a matter of promoting green efforts, but also a matter of national security.  Says Mr. Autry, "All of these so-called little bits that people are doing around the country are gonna add up to a whole lot in terms of our dependence on foreign oil."

Thanks to the success of the program, many airports around the country with spare land are looking to adopt similar installations.  Worldwater and Solar is currently working on a smaller similar project with Denver's airport, inspired by the success.

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