The Pittsburgh Airport microgrid is a worthy however difficult-to-copy instance of resilience
A representation of the new terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport, which is like the rest of the airport … [+]
Rendered courtesy of Pittsburgh International Airport
Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) went offline in early June. Far from embracing the “simple life” preppers crave, it has achieved a level of independence and resilience that airports and survivors across the country will embrace – it has its own independent, ample power supply around the clock .
At a time when power outages at regional and airports are known every biweekly, the new microgrid from PIT seems highly desirable.
Power outages at major US airports has been a recurring issue for years. Denver International Airport, the fifth largest airport in the United States by traffic, lost power for several hours last week, even though the Denver area’s power grid and backup generators were fed redundantly. In May, a large part of Los Angeles International Airport suffered a power outage.
An extended outage in 2017 at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the busiest in the country, caused national travel chaos and prompted Atlanta-based Delta Airlines DAL to cancel 1,400 flights, costing the airline an estimated $ 25 million. A failure at LAX that same year had similar consequences.
Such failures inspired the management of Pittsburgh International to reflect on their own power a few years ago.
“The  The Atlanta and LA incidents triggered us to say, ‘Let’s look at a microgrid and its profitability, ”said Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International.
Foot on the gas
Cassotis and her team had a significant advantage in their calculations. The airport is located west-northwest of Pittsburgh and sits on the Marcellus Shale, a deep natural gas reserve that runs under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. Over the past decade, the Marcellus has seen a boom in exploration and extraction, facilitated by fracking.
Along with Ohio and West Virginia, Pennsylvania fueled the shale gas leasing and drilling boom in eastern shale gas, while states like Maryland and New York missed the opportunity. In 2013, the FAA approved natural gas drilling on the airport site. PIT offers a lot of space. It is one of the 10 largest airports in the US with an area of 8,800 hectares. The CNX Resources CNX natural gas exploration and development company began drilling in 2015.
Five natural gas-powered generators supply the PIT’s microgrid with 20 megawatts of electrical power, … [+]
PIT was also in the planning stages of a new $ 1.4 billion terminal project. Contrary to what you might expect – and the marketing stories companies want to project all the time – the terminal won’t expand passenger traffic.
“We’re actually shrinking our footprint. That doesn’t happen much, ”says Cassotis directly.
PIT was expanded into a mega-hub for US Airways in the early 1990s. When the airline gave up its hub in 2004 and merged with American Airlines in 2013, it accounted for the majority of PIT’s passenger traffic. Southwest Airlines LUV and American have used some of the capacity and the airport has added eight new airlines since 2015 but no longer has “mega” passenger numbers.
“It’s more of a naturally divided source and target market than a hub,” admits Cassotis.
It is also naturally endowed with clean energy, a regional heritage of resource extraction (coal) and a desire to stimulate economic growth.
“It really all came together,” observes Cassotis. “There was natural gas coming out of the property, we went to see what was going on in LA and Atlanta, and we were planning to build our new terminal. It showed that sustainability and lower costs can be combined with resilience and supporting partners in this project. “
The airport team considered options and potential partners, but did not specify any particular combination of resources or facilities for a microgrid, said Tom Woodrow, vice president of engineering at PIT.
The best solution that the regional power producer Essential Utilities and its subsidiary People’s Natural Gas ultimately presented to them was a 20-megawatt natural gas power plant with five natural gas-powered generators and a solar system that can generate three megawatts of peak power. The airport is currently drawing 14 megawatts at peak operation.
“The 23 megawatt solution provided us with 100% plus of all energy that we can use, with room for growth if required. That’s one of the most important things we liked about your solution. We can disconnect from the grid and operate as an island, ”says Woodrow.
An 8 hectare, 9,360 panel array generates 3 megawatts of electricity for PIT’s microgrid. future … [+]
The microgrid is operated and maintained by the energy supplier. It can send surplus electricity and sell it back to the regional main electricity network via a connecting line. The solar system is actually on a former landfill and while its 9,360 solar panels can generate around 13% of the peak power of the microgrid, it is clearly natural gas that does the heavy lifting.
There are few other obvious examples of civil / commercial airport microgrids. The FAA was unable to provide a figure at press time of how many such networks exist nationwide, but Humboldt County Airport in California recently announced the start of construction of its own microgrid.
The purely solar-powered network corresponds more to the emergency power supply than an independent microgrid for the small regional airport. Local and state officials predictably praised its renewable energy and climate-friendly nature, but its ability to power the airport and its resident U.S. Coast Guard appears to be limited to 24 hours under suboptimal conditions.
Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, has a more robust combined heat and power unit (CHP) that has been in operation since 2002. Like PIT, it is powered by natural gas, but its output is 5.8 megawatts. The microgrid kept the airport (New England’s second largest) running during major regional blackouts from a Halloween blizzard in 2011 and super storm Sandy in 2012.
The installation of PIT is obviously on a different scale. While the airport is given an admirable resilience, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate it in other locations.
Roger Copeland, a senior executive in the energy and energy group at Jacobs engineering firm in Dallas, says his company sees demand for microgrids for commercial airports and has some projects underway, although he was unable to provide details. He admits that the demand for microgrids is high elsewhere.
“We see a lot [of demand] in higher education and in the federal area – federal air force bases. We did a lot for them. Some are driven by [potential] Energy savings and that brings resilience as an advantage. ”
One of the challenges in setting up microgrids at airports in the broader sense is payment. Power generation companies tend to view such projects with caution, considering land, construction, and transmission costs while trying to estimate ROI. Deals need to be properly structured so that costs – and savings from the microgrid – are appropriately distributed.
That seems to have happened at PIT, which essentially adopted a Microgrid-as-a-Service or MaaS model. With a MaaS, a third party finances, owns and operates the microgrid, and the microgrid customer only pays for the service, just as he pays his electricity supplier.
Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport, says the airport’s resources have come together … [+]
Allegheny County Airport Authority
“All we do is pay [Essential Utilities
/People’s Gas] an electricity bill, “confirms Christina Cassotis,” maintenance is entirely up to you. “
The airport has a 20-year contract with Essential that gives it a lease on PIT’s property for a small fee. At the end of the 20 years, the network system can be transferred back to the airport or, according to Woodrow, the contract can be extended by PIT. With the development costs that Essential bears in return for all power generation revenues, all parties benefit, including PA taxpayers who see no fees.
“That didn’t cost us anything,” confirms Cassotis. “Our job here is to be the strategic landlord. This is how we see it. It is an opportunity to bundle the strengths of the region and use them for the industry in such a way that the [airport] Assets issued. We love to show the airlines and our partners that, in addition to our function as a municipal utility, we are increasingly running like a company. ”
Copeland says the MaaS model is particularly prevalent in the college infrastructure market. “It’s really all about having an efficient anchor generation resource that the utility can benefit from. If they can do that, they are ready to give this resilience as a side effect. ”
Jacobs has worked on microgrids up to 135 megawatts. Most rely on fossil fuels, including natural gas, as the base energy source, though Copeland says they have been looking into the possibility of using JP-5 jet fuel for some aviation projects.
The management of PIT sees sufficient performance, lower electricity costs and resilience as highlighted marketing goals in their drive to attract new business for the airport and the region. With the focus on turning the airport campus, of which 3,000 hectares are available for development, into a hub for additive manufacturing and AI, the airport presents its industrial park as “Neighborhood 91” and connects it metaphorically with the city’s 90 unique districts from Pittsburgh.
Cassotis points out that the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are leaders in additive manufacturing and development, adding synergies to the airport’s efforts and economic renewal in western PA.
“When you look at how the region’s economy has diversified, with a focus on higher education, financial services, energy, robotics and AI, we see that all of this is coming to the airport and it’s an opportunity to say, ‘This is’ Pittsburgh . “
It’s an opportunity made possible by the random combination of the location and resources of PIT. Pittsburgh International’s new independent microgrid is undoubtedly the envy of regulators and major commercial airports across the country. But finding ways to duplicate it won’t be easy.