Cooper: Airport a solar first, but...

Cooper: Airport a solar first, but...

June 21st, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

A small plane comes in for a landing on the far side of rows of photovoltaic cells at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport as the airport prepared for the second phase of solar panel installations in 2013.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

The rhetoric flowed fast and friendly Wednesday when Chattanooga airport officials announced they had completed a solar farm to make ours the first airport in the country to generate enough energy to meet its daily power needs.

They variously called the achievement "a model for other airports," "good for environment and our bottom line," and part of a practice that will "change our future."

They were referring to the solar aspect of the arrangement, solar being a "green" energy source and all.

However, 90% of the solar farm was paid for by federal government grants, with Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport picking up the other 10%.

That's not exactly the "model for other airports" we envision.

Oh, we're no solar "deniers," nor do we blame Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport officials for seeking Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grants if they could get them.

The ones for our airport came through Voluntary Airport Low Emission (VALE) grants. VALE grants may be issued to airports that are said to be in non-attainment or maintenance areas. The city is, or was, in a non-attainment area for Particulate Matter 2.5, probably for its heavy manufacturing past, making it eligible for the grants.

No, our gripe about solar energy is its continued subsidy by the federal government.

If the availability of fossil fuels is limited, and we believe it is, and if the production of fossil fuels is worse for the environment than renewable energy sources, and we know it is, we should be looking at making renewable energy so inexpensive that it would be impractical if we didn't use it.

Today, that's not the case, so our belief has always been that fossil fuels should be used, and green sources where practical, until the renewable energy sources become as cheap or cheaper than the fossil fuels.

Some solar advocates say that day has come, so if it has, it makes sense to cut the tie to federal government subsidies. On the other hand, some who push green energy argue, the federal government should continue to subsidize solar energy precisely because it is better for the environment.

We don't believe that's the type of commerce in which the federal government should be involved, though. Energy companies, like other businesses, should compete without federal government assistance. That, we think, is the quickest way to making renewables like solar and wind more competitive in price.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, ever so slowly, reduces the subsidy for taxpayers who use solar, fuel cell, wind energy or geothermal heat pumps for their residencies. Their tax credit is 30% for systems placed in service through the end of 2019, 26% for systems placed in service by 2021 and 22% for systems placed in service by 2022.

The reductions are similar for businesses, though the reductions are different for various energy sources. For some types of solar energy, the tax credits fall from 30% through the end of 2019 to 10% by the end of 2022. For other types, they only fall to 22% by the end of 2022.

The FAA website does not indicate that its VALE grants are affected by recent tax legislation, though.

The Chattanooga airport began its $10 million solar array with a first phase in 2010. It was expanded in 2013, at the time producing 85 percent of the airport's energy needs, according to the airport's website. The recently completed third phase finished the project.

The way it works, according to airport officials, is that the solar energy produced from the array — enough, officials said, to power 160,000 light bulbs — is sold to TVA, which then reduces the airport's EPB power bill by the corresponding amount.

The 2.64 megawatt array, located on the southwest corner of the airfield off Jubilee Drive, an area unsuitable for aviation purposes, is one of the largest in the county. It is smaller than an installation generating 9.5 megawatts of electricity at the Volkswagen assembly plant and will be behind a 4.3 megawatt array planned for the top of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's headquarters on Cameron Hill.

We're delighted that our airport became the first in the country to generate the equivalent of its power needs, appreciative that airport officials were prescient enough to take advantage of the federal grants, but hope that funding airport energy needs across the country doesn't become one more thing for which federal taxpayers become eternally responsible.

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