Microgrids Keeping Airlines Ready for Takeoff

This article was originally published on cnbc.com on Nov. 3, 2019.

Should airports go off the grid? Pittsburgh International Airport — and others — think so.

Remember that 11-hour power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in December 2017 that canceled hundreds of flights, stranded thousands of passengers and cost Delta Airlines alone an estimated $50 million in lost business?

Since then power outages linked to everything from equipment failures, faulty wires and an explosion at an electric power station have disrupted operations at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, New York’s LaGuardia Airport, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, Philadelphia International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

And just last Saturday, power at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport went out — twice — due to high winds associated with Tropical Storm Olga. In addition to flight cancelations and delays, a celebratory open house for the new $1 billion terminal opening Nov. 6 had to be postponed by a few hours.

Microgrids to the rescue

During power outages at airports, generators and other forms of back-up power usually kick-in to power essential emergency lighting, but boarding, deplaning, airfield activity and the business of the airport often comes to a standstill.

That’s just one reason Pittsburgh International Airport recently declared its intention to become the first major U.S. airport to create a self-sufficient energy system, or microgrid, using only energy sources — solar and natural gas — from its own property.

“After watching what happened in Atlanta and Los Angeles, I think every airport CEO across the country, and probably around the world, wondered if they were ready and prepared,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny Airport Authority, which operates the Pittsburgh airport. “Here the answer is yes, but we’d like to make sure we can continue to operate in any circumstance.”

To that end, Pittsburgh International Airport plans to have its microgrid in place by 2021 to power the entire airport, including the airfield, the on-site Hyatt hotel and a Sunoco station.

Power for PIT’s microgrid will be generated through the airport’s onsite natural gas wells and almost 8,000 solar panels covering eight acres of the airport land. A connection to the traditional electrical grid will remain, but only as an option for emergency or backup power when needed.

“It has everything to do with resiliency and redundancy,” said Cassotis. “We wanted to make sure we could do everything with the assets we have to enhance the safety of the traveling public and insure continued operations. As a bonus, we get to lower the cost of energy.”

PIT airport officials project an energy bill savings of $500,000 in the first year of the project alone. In addition to lowering its energy costs, the airport also will receive annual lease payments from Peoples Natural Gas through the project.

Many military facilities, college campuses, hospital complexes, industrial parks and other large institutions already have some sort of microgrid in place to insure uninterrupted power. In general, these systems are connected to existing grids but can disconnect and operate on their own with power from batteries, diesel-powered generators or, ideally, solar or another source of renewable power, said Craig Schiller, a manager specializing in aviation at the global energy nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute.

While Detroit Metro Airport already has a microgrid in place, airports in Los Angeles, Denver, San Diego, Boston, Orange County, California and elsewhere are now exploring and creating microgrids as well.

Early next year, RMI will be publishing an airport microgrid toolkit funded by a $450,000 grant from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board to help speed the process.

Microgrids can give airports greater control over the energy they need and use and, in many cases, save airports money on energy costs, said RMI’s Schiller. “But the bottom line is maximizing an airport’s ability to meet its function.”

Airports not only fuel the economic vitality of a community, but in an emergency, an airport with its own power grid can become a critical community asset.

“99% of the time customers won’t notice whether an airport is using its microgrid resources or not,” said Schiller. “But if there’s a local, regional or natural disaster, the airport will be able to provide people a place to go or a way to get out of the city.”

Airport hotel with a microgrid island

Most microgrids are designed to connect to existing power grids. But the 512-room TWA Hotel and conference center opened in May 2019 in the landmark Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 5 is an “islanded microgrid” operating independent of New York City’s electric grid.

The hotel has its own 9,000-square-foot microgrid/cogeneration power plant on the roof, fueled by natural gas.

The plant generates all the electricity for the hotel campus and harvests waste heat from engines for hot water and other uses. A battery storage system helps with peak loads and backup.

“Think of it as a Tesla on the hotel’s roof,” said Tyler Morse, chief executive of MCR/Morse Development.

“The entire city and the airport could be down, but the hotel would still be operating, with people having cocktails at the bar,” said Mike Byrnes, senior vice president for Veolia North America, which has operators on duty 24/7 to operate and maintain the hotel’s microgrid.

Beyond ensuring that cocktails can continue to be served during a blackout, the TWA Hotel’s power plant will also contribute to the business’ bottom line.

Hotel developer Morse said the Con Edison electric bills would have cost $5 million per year.

“The $15 million we spent to build the plant will be paid back in three years,” said Morse. “And we’ll be saving $4 million annually.”

Which should be enough to buy everyone a round of drinks, or three, in the lobby bars in the next New York City blackout.