Solar power will never replace jet power at BWI Marshall Airport, but officials believe the clean energy generated by newly installed roof panels atop the daily parking garage could boost the airport's image and bottom line.
The solar panels are part of a $19.4 million package of upgrades to conserve energy, shrink the airport's carbon footprint and reduce water consumption, said Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
"Two things drove this project: the environmental impact and the savings," Wiedefeld said Thursday. "The payback on the solar panels and the other components of the project are fantastic."
The work includes replacing more than 40,000 lights in the terminal and garages, renovating 64 escalators and moving walkways, installing low-flow toilets and upgrading faucets to use less water.
Airport officials said the measures would cut annual water use by 11 percent and energy use by 17 percent, while reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by 12,400 metric tons — the equivalent of not burning 1.39 million gallons of gasoline.
The canopy-mounted solar array on the nine-story garage consists of eight panels, the largest about two parking spaces wide by 17 spaces long. The panels are tied into the airport's electrical grid.
Pepco Energy Services, which installed the system, said it would produce more than 600,000 kilowatt hours of energy a year — enough to power 104 houses.
The company has guaranteed $2 million in savings from the energy project, "and if it doesn't deliver, they pay," Wiedefeld said.
BWI is joining a growing number of airports that are installing solar energy systems. Aviation experts say energy often accounts for 25 percent or more of an airport's total operating expenses.
"Airports have to move people and cargo safely, and there's not tons they can do to change the business model," said Katherine Preston, director of environmental affairs with Airports Council International-North America. "If they can do energy management and improve energy efficiency, they can control some expenses without compromising."