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.
That could provide a significant savings for the airport. Last year, it spent $3.5 million on electricity, an annual cost that would be all but wiped out should the solar project come together as planned. That plays into a larger strategy the airport is pursuing with the new terminal project: cutting operating costs so it can lower fees charged to airlines and potentially lure more flights to the area.
Although power typically has been restored to Armstrong relatively quickly in the wake of hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina, getting electricity back sometimes has taken several days. Ahmad said having an on-site source of power would allow the facility to reopen quickly in the wake of a storm.
The Kenner airport accounts for about 80 percent of all air travel in Louisiana; about 9.2 million people used it last year.
Armstrong Airport now has generators to provide power during emergencies, but they are capable of providing only enough juice to keep crucial systems running. With a solar installation, all of the airport's facilities could be operational as soon as the winds of a hurricane died down, Ahmad said.
Like the rest of the terminal, the solar panels would be designed to survive a Category 4 hurricane.
"They have specifications that can withstand those kinds of winds," Ahmad said. Debris that could damage the panels is not anticipated to be a problem since the airport's fields in Kenner are already cleared on a regular basis, he said.
Airports and solar panels have not always been an easy fit. Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, for example, ran into trouble when the 500-kilowatt solar array on its parking garage reflected glare into the eyes of air traffic controllers, the New Hampshire Union-Leader reported. Fixing that problem by repositioning the panels is expected to cost $1.9 million, according to the paper.
Glare has not been a problem with the much larger installations at Denver or Indianapolis, officials said, and the FAA provides guidance on how to position panels to avoid problems.
"Once we have the location identified and the direction of the panels and the type of material, we'll share that information with the FAA, and it will go through a review to make sure it is not interfering with operations," Ahmad said.
Airport officials are hoping to pay for the solar project with state money, though they do not have a commitment for the money in hand, Ahmad said. He stressed that the solar project can be added at any point in the construction of the new terminal and, whether or not it gets funded, the overall terminal project will continue toward its expected opening in 2018, to coincide with New Orleans' 300th anniversary.
The solar project "is something that we believe is necessary but we don't have a deadline on," he said.
Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.neworleansadvocate.com