Tennessee may not strike people as the most progressive state with 46% of the population conservative and 27% moderate, according to a Pew Research Center poll. You might not expect it to be a bastion of green energy, but the greater Chattanooga area is stepping out in front of many other parts of the U.S. as a solar pioneer. Among other firsts, Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport is the nation’s first and only airport with a solar farm that generates enough power to supply its total energy needs.

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The city of 185,000 is situated in southern Tennessee, near the Georgia border. It’s taken advantage of an average 207 sunny days per year to power several major solar projects. For example, Volkswagen has a 33-acre solar park in Chattanooga and recently chose the city for its first U.S. electric vehicle manufacturing facility. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee built a 10,000 solar panel facility at its Chattanooga headquarters. Other proud Chattanooga accomplishments include Majestic Theater, the first LEED Gold Certified theater in the US and the country’s second largest LEED Gold Certified office campus.

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“[The airport] may not be the country’s largest or most amenity-packed airport, but there’s no question that Chattanooga Airport has made sustainability a top priority,” said Zach Honig, editor-at-large for The Points Guy, as quoted in Newsweek. “An expansive solar field became fully operational one year before the pandemic, producing enough power to support the entire airport. Outside the terminal building, there’s a Tesla supercharger and electric-vehicle charging stations.”

Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport also switched out the airfield’s old incandescent lights for more energy-efficient LEDs. The terminal building’s exterior and interior lighting upgraded to compact florescent lights and hooked up to motion detectors so that lights were used only when needed. These simple lighting changes allowed the Chattanooga Airport to reduce its electric consumption by a megawatt per year.

Blake Poole, vice president of air service and economic development at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, shared his insights with Inhabitat about being the nation’s first solar-powered airport.

Inhabitat: How did this solar initiative first start at the Chattanooga airport?

Poole: We began by looking at ways to reduce costs, but we also wanted to deliver on our quality service. By reducing costs, we also assist the airlines and their expenses, which opens up more services for our customers. Alongside EPB (our local power utility), we went after funding sources and ended up securing multiple FAA grants for the project.

Inhabitat: Does the solar farm really power the whole airport?

Poole: Yes, it does! Our solar farm sells enough renewable energy back to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) equal to all of the electricity we use. The solar farm also has storage as well to help after sundown and in low light situations.

Inhabitat: Tell us about the workforce that installs and maintains the solar farm.

Poole: Construction of the three-phase solar farm began in 2011. The first panels went online in that same year, and we completed the farm in 2019. TVA and EPB provided technical support to ensure the solar farm complied with national standards and codes. We worked with Inman Solar on the design and installation, and they also carry out our ongoing maintenance of the solar farm.

Inhabitat: What other eco-measures have you taken around the airport?

Poole: Several years ago, the airport started by initiating sustainable practices at the airfield and within the commercial terminal. The airport has grown its environmental stewardship to include larger projects like LEED designated facilities. Our corporate terminal was the first in the world to be LEED Platinum Certified. Other initiatives include lighting enhancements, green landscaping practices, recycling and maintenance of our ground surfaces in environmentally responsible ways.

Inhabitat: Have the eco-upgrades at the Chattanooga airport inspired other businesses or airports to adopt similar measures?

Poole: We’ve actually talked about the project with representatives of several airports around the world who are interested in implementing similar measures.

Inhabitat: What else should readers know about the Chattanooga Airport?

Poole: Over the past 50 years, Chattanooga has transformed itself from one of the most polluted cities in the nation to one of the cleanest. As a cornerstone of the community and a hub for economic activity, the Chattanooga Airport shares the region’s vision for sustainability. Beyond that, our city is known for its collaboration. Our solar farm project is a reflection of strong partnerships across Chattanooga.

+ Chattanooga Airport

Images via Chattanooga Airport