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Glaring situation: Solar farm at airport could face an obstacle

Published 5:28pm Thursday, August 22, 2013

Concern over possible glare interfering with landings at and takeoffs from airports might affect a proposed solar-farm project next to Warren Field Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing regulations and guidelines regarding solar farms (and other related technologies) next to or near airports. That review began June 26, 2012.

During the Aug. 5 meeting of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, Brian Kennedy, a representative with Duke Energy Renewables, owners of the White Post solar farm, said the FAA’s concerns could possibly delay the solar-farm project planned for the airport, which is owned by the city. Duke Energy Renewables would own and operate the proposed solar farm at the airport.

Kennedy said that in 2012 an air-traffic controller at an airport in New Hampshire complained about glare from a nearby solar farm.

“The FAA, and appropriately so, said, ‘Well, let’s take this into consideration.’ They said, ‘Until further notice, we’re shutting down approval of solar farms at airports,’” Kennedy said. “It was just a safety concern.”

The FAA has prepared a report, Technical Guidance for Evaluating Selected Solar Technologies on Airports, to meet the regulatory and information needs of FAA personnel and airport sponsors in evaluating airport solar projects.

“While offering benefits, solar energy introduces some new and unforeseen issues, like possible reflectivity and communication systems interference. The guidance discusses these issues and offers new information that can facilitate FAA project reviews, including a flow chart of FAA procedures to ensure that proposed systems are safe and pose no risks to pilots, air traffic controllers, or airport operations,” reads a part of the report.

At the Aug. 5 meeting, Kennedy said he believed that issue could be resolved in a matter of weeks, allowing Duke Energy Renewables to continue pursing the airport project.

A delay in the proposed airport solar farm could hinder or prevent the project from receiving tax incentive grants, which run out at the end of the year, said Allen Lewis, Washington’s public-works director.

“Supposedly there are tax incentive grants out there that are good through the end of this calendar year. They don’t know if they’re going to be available next calendar year. Whether they get approval from the FAA to build the solar farm out at the airport, I do not know the answer to that question. They’re fairly confident that they’re going to get that permission, but I haven’t seen anything in writing yet,” Lewis said.

“From day one, the possibility of glare has always been a hurdle that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been cleared yet,” Lewis said Thursday. “They (Duke Energy Renewables) have a got a consultant that is working with them that got approval for a solar farm on airport property in Chattanooga, Tenn.”

Lewis said he understands concerns with possible glare causing problems for aircraft trying to land or takeoff.

“It’s not that it can’t be done or that it won’t be done. … I don’t know that anybody has filed a complaint as far as this location is concerned,” Lewis said.

Lewis said solar-panel technology has change a lot in the past three decades.

“Thirty years ago, they looked like mirrors. … They don’t look like mirrors anymore,” Lewis said.

“The data that Duke (Energy) Renewables has submitted show that their solar panels are less reflective than grass,” Lewis said.

Last year, the City Council adopted a resolution of intent to lease 75 acres of airport property for $22,689 a year for 15 years, with the possibility of three extensions of five years each. The land would be used for a solar farm.

 “Should this economic-development project become a reality, it would be upward of a $50-million investment at the airport and could create up to 35 to 40 new jobs in the future. So, I’m excited about it,” former City Manager Josh Kay said last year.
Last year, Mayor Archie Jennings said he believes the city’s involvement with the project could “be the turning point for the airport,” which is not a moneymaker for the city.

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