Lot 9 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is an ocean of asphalt, typically occupied by thousands of parked cars. Soon it will be covered with 16 acres worth of solar panels, generating enough electricity to power the AirTrain that links the nearby subway station to the airport’s terminals, while also meeting the electricity needs of hundreds of homes in the surrounding neighborhood.
Like a more central version of the vast solar arrays that get built on empty fields in the hinterlands, it’s a relatively new kind of solar power project that brings the generation and storage of solar energy right where it’s needed most.
The project is a collaboration between the New York Power Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Goldman Sachs, and SunPower, a solar energy company. It’s one of several projects SunPower is building on sites owned by transportation agencies around the country, including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the Delaware River Port Authority. The projects take advantage of the wide open parking lots at train stations and transportation agency-owned land to create much needed electricity.
“Public agencies are often on the bleeding edge of a lot of this innovation that’s happening around solar and storage,” says Eric Potts, senior vice president at SunPower. He says school districts in California have been leading the way in adding solar panel-covered canopies over parking lots to offset energy requirements and save money. “They are trading off operating expenses to pay energy bills, with energy savings from solar to put more money into books or education or teachers or facilities. So it’s very much an economic decision as well as a green decision.”
For transit agencies, the economic side is especially important as the pandemic has led to significant cuts in ridership, passengers, and revenue at transit agencies and airports. “What we’re able to give these transportation entities is another source of revenue or a source of energy savings,” says Potts.
The project at JFK airport will offset the facilities energy requirements and reduce the amount of conventional power it buys from the grid. Operational by early 2022, the project will place solar canopies over parking spaces in Lot 9 that will be capable of generating 13 megawatts of solar power, about half of which will go to powering the AirTrain. “That’s a 7 megawatt baseload, and it’s a tremendous energy draw at the airport,” says SunPower senior account executive Alex Sarly. “So how can you make a material impact on the carbon consumption of the airport? Hit the AirTrain. It’s right there.”
The rest of the power generated there will be distributed to the neighborhoods near the airport at reduced rates. It’s part of an effort to offset the airport’s significant environmental impacts on the people living nearby. “They have a special responsibility in terms of how much carbon they produce on property,” Sarly says.
Producing electricity will bring down the airport’s energy costs, but it’s also a matter of practicality. As transit agencies and public entities convert their vehicles and fleets to running on electricity, like the JFK AirTrain, it makes sense to have a source of electric energy collected and stored on-site for those vehicles to use. “There’s a really big push right now and expectation that a lot of these transportation hubs are going to need a lot more electricity to meet that demand,” says Potts. “Building a power plant on site where the power’s going to be consumed is setting us up for greater energy independence.”
But Potts says there are still some infrastructural hurdles to deal with before arrays of solar panels over parking lots and large storage batteries can completely meet the needs of transit agencies. “The grid’s not quite there yet, the technology and the ability to store is not quite there yet either,” he says.
“I think we will start to see this expand across train stations, airports, bus depots,” Potts says. “You can imagine a lot of different parking lots or areas where there’s open space for them to build.”