Latest news and insights from Australia’s airports

Solar just the start for Brisbane Airport’s sustainability focus

It will be the southern hemisphere’s biggest commercial rooftop solar array, an 11,675 square-metre   field of 7,133 solar panels covering Brisbane Airport’s international terminal.

And that’s only part of a bigger 6 megawatt system spread across six Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC) sites.  At 36,000 square metres, the overall system is twice the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and will need 200kms of cabling to hook it up.

“Once fully installed, the panels will be producing about 18 per cent of BAC’s direct electricity consumption and will also save us $1 million a year in electricity costs,’’ BAC environment and sustainability manager Wendy Weir says.

“So it’s a fantastic project for BAC for a number of reasons.’’

The installations will be located on rooftops – except for one ground-based array – and will feed the buildings on which they’re installed.

Weir says the impetus for the system stemmed from a combination of the rising cost of electricity, the falling price of solar panels and the technology’s increasing efficiency.

“Spending $11 million of capital is a big call, so it had to meet BAC’s internal rate of return,’’ she says.

“The added bonus that it saves $1 million a year in electricity costs is a great incentive.

“Not only is it commercially viable and will save 18 per cent of our direct electricity consumption but it also reduces BAC’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s the equivalent of planting 50,000 trees or powering 1700 Australian homes per year.’’

Brisbane is not the only Australian airport to take to solar technology with gusto:  Northern Territory Airports also adopted the technology and Weir says it’s something to which airports around the world are turning.

“Around the world, most airports are installing solar panels over other (renewable energy) types, although Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, for example, has signed up to a long-term agreement to purchase wind electricity off a local producer,’’ she says.

Nor are solar panels the only sustainability project undertaken at Brisbane.

BAC has also signed a $25 million, five-year contract with ground transport specialists Carbridge to provide 11 electric buses to shuttle passengers between terminals as well as to car parks and Skygate Village.

The new electric buses are due to start arriving in January.

“That’s an example of a contract that we’ve entered into that helps reduce the airport’s scope three carbon emissions (emissions that are a consequence of the operations of an organisation but are not directly generated by it) ,’’ Weir says.

Weir is especially pleased that environmentally friendly technologies are now becoming competitive.

With the price of technology such as batteries coming down, she believes electric vehicles will be standard practice at airports within 10 years.

Energy performance contracts are another area Brisbane and other major airports are using to help boost ecological credentials.

BAC has a six-year contract with a lighting provider to upgrade multi-level car park lighting to more efficient LED lighting. This project again had to meet the internal rate of return but meant BAC didn’t have to spend the capital upfront.

“Because we don’t have to spend our capital upfront, it improves our internal rate of return as the cost is split over six years,’’ she says.

“The contractor is obligated to deliver energy savings or their monthly payment by BAC is reduced.

“And it’s going to save 3.75 gigawatt hours of electricity consumption per year, which is almost 3,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year.”

Beyond the technological improvements, BAC also has biodiversity zones comprising about 10 per cent of the airport’s land mass.

Because Brisbane Airport has the biggest land mass of any major Australian airport, it has about 290ha of habitat set aside for biodiversity conservation.

“It’s a substantial area and one of the things I’m proud of is that we did comprehensive fauna studies to be able to work out that bird species that are in those biodiversity zones do not pose wildlife hazards to aircraft operations,’’ Weir says.

“So I’m proud that we can say that biodiversity conservation can go hand-in-hand with airport operations based on habitat type.’’

The airport also has an eye to the future with a climate change adaption plan that includes engagement with stakeholders such as utility companies to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

This includes looking at potential problems such as sea level rises, increases in the intensity of rain events and drought durations, as well as increases in the frequency of days involving extreme heat.

“It’s understanding what those climate stressors are and how they can impact on airport operations and then ensuring that we have business continuity plans where we address those,’’ Weir says, noting this is something in which shareholders are increasingly interested.

This is also an area where the environmental specialists believe Australian airports are ahead of many of their global counterparts.

In terms of ongoing challenges, Weir sees biofuels as something that needs addressing.

Virgin Australia and the Queensland Government have recently announced a two-year trial at Brisbane Airport using sustainable aviation fuel sourced from the US, which is to be blended and pumped through the airport’s fuel system.

Airlines have committed to carbon neutral growth from 2020 and biofuels are seen as an essential component of this.

“Biofuels are going to be a challenge for Australian airlines because we don’t currently have an industry in Australia centred on biofuels,’’ she says.

“What feedstocks are produced get exported, so one of our biggest problems will be creating a local industry.’’

Weir notes there should be no problem obtaining new feedstocks, particularly from Queensland’s sugar cane trash or woody waste from forestry residue.

“What’s going to be the challenge is getting those industries up to speed and having commercially viable operations and working out the logistics of getting it from, let’s say, the Gladstone or Townsville biofuel refineries, assuming they get up and running,’’ she says.

What’s also needed, according to Weir, is the support of the major oil companies to blend the biofuels with conventional jet fuel “before sending it down the hydrant systems”.

This is something the oil companies in Australia are currently investigating, according to Weir.

“One of the reasons Virgin Australia committed to this project is that the airlines need to see the industry getting some momentum on this,’’ she says.

“Hopefully this initiative can help show the biofuel industry that aviation needs it and is currently preparing for it.’’

Brisbane’s commitment to sustainability goes beyond the environment to areas such as community engagement and reconciliation projects,.

“I believe we excel in some areas and have more work to do in others,’’ she says. “But I think you’ll find that’s pretty standard. No one airport can lead in every sustainability aspect, they always have their own challenges.’’

By Steve Creedy

About Steve Creedy

An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.

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