Fresh off inking a new lease with the developers of a planned solar farm in Sunnyside, Houston officials hope to produce clean, reliable power on the grounds of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Airport officials are asking for proposals involving solar, wind or other clean technologies that can generate 50 megawatts of power – enough for about 10,000 homes on a hot summer day. In its request for ideas, the Houston Airport System highlighted the hundreds of acres of forested green space to the east of John F. Kennedy Boulevard as it approaches the airport.

The project also could involve solar panels hoisted above parking garages and terminals. While plans are at an early stage, officials say they are excited about joining the ranks of airports worldwide with green power facilities.

“You’ve got a lot of different options out there. You’ve got solar, you’ve got wind, you’ve got hydrogen, you’ve got battery power,” Jim Szczesniak, the airport’s chief operating officer, said Wednesday. “We wanted to get this (request for information) out to be able to survey the industry.”

Officials are asking interested companies to put forth proposals for powering Bush airport by Aug. 31. They officially are agnostic about the type of technology that should be used. But they do have a few guidelines: The selected project must start by producing 50 megawatts of electricity with plans to grow to 100 megawatts.

Over the next seven years, terminal renovations and expansions, electric rental cars and, potentially, electric airplanes will lead to growing demand on the airport grid, officials say.

“We’re trying to make sure that it’s scalable, because of the fact that we know there’s growth coming forward,” Szczesniak said.

Airport officials want the project’s power to cost about 5 cents per kilowatt hour, which the airport says is about what it pays now, compared to the 15.7 cents per kilowatt hour that residential customers in Houston pay on average.

Officials said they hope to ink a deal that does not require the airport system to pay any money up front for capital investments. The project’s developers would be repaid through a 15- to 30-year purchasing agreement.

Meanwhile, the airport wants the project to have a plan for connections to its terminals. If it includes intermittent power sources, such as solar or wind, it must be accompanied by technologies, such as battery storage, that “assure 100 percent capacity availability and energy delivery during prolonged weather events or grid utility outages,” according to the request for information.

Szczesniak said the next step after the initial call for ideas will be to put out a more formal request for bids. It is possible the airport pursues multiple projects with different technologies, he said.

If Houston settles on solar, it would join many other airports. As of 2020, about 20 percent of public airports had adopted solar power over the past decade, according to a study from the University of Colorado Denver. There already is a solar canopy atop the red garage at the William P. Hobby Airport that is slated to generate 1 megawatt of power.

Speaking to City Council on July 26, Houston’s chief development officer, Andy Icken, said the city had learned important lessons from developing a planned solar farm on a 250-acre former city dump east of Highway 288 in Sunnyside.

To facilitate financing on the Sunnyside project, the city agreed to own the solar farm while leasing it back to the developer, who is paying for its $70 million in capital costs, at the rate of $200,000 per year. City Council approved the project’s amended lease on Aug. 2.

The Sunnyside project is set to begin construction soon. The city hopes to have a 2-megawatt “community solar” component up and running by Dec. 15, with a much larger, 50 megawatt commercial operation going into service next May.

For solar developers, there are several advantages to airports. Airports can expect steady demand for decades. They often control vast tracts of undeveloped land. Moreover, they often are eager to showcase efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Houston’s airports have committed to a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.

Even as airports go green on their own grounds, however, the commercial flights they host continue to drive climate change. Passenger flights to and from Bush Intercontinental produced 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. That is the equivalent of more than 1 million passenger cars.

The airlines have their own net-zero emissions goals, Szczesniak noted.

One potential hurdle for the Bush airport project is the question of how it could affect drainage, whatever technology it uses. The danger of flooding at the airport was highlighted during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and again when the remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda bowled over the area in 2019.

Experts say the hard surfaces of solar panels have the possibility to increase stormwater runoff, although so far there has been little scientific research on that issue. Solar or other facilities also could require access roads that worsen runoff.

Solar panels on top of the Red parking garage at William Hobby Airport, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Lauren McPhillips, an assistant professor of engineering at Pennsylvania State University who studies the environmental impacts of solar farms, said developers can take steps to manage runoff such as wide, “well-vegetated” spaces between rows.

In its request for ideas, the airport system noted that developers will have to work around the dry-bottom detention areas and ponds that catch rainwater on airport grounds. Some of the land between Kennedy Boulevard and Interstate 69 lies within the 100-year floodplain.

Airport officials raised the possibility that the energy facility could include the “co-development” of flood mitigation projects.

McPhillips said it was “unfortunate” that a forested area was under consideration for the project, “as removing mature trees also takes away a carbon sink. However, a solar farm with well-established perennial grasses could continue to take up carbon in the future, as well as providing other benefits.”

Szczesniak said the airport considers both the carbon and stormwater impacts of new projects. “Whenever we’re doing projects out here, we mitigate whatever we’re going to do,” he said.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...