Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) went “off the grid” in early June. Far from embracing the “simple-life” that preppers covet, it has nonetheless achieved a measure of independence and resiliency that airports, and survivalists, across the country will applaud – it has its own independent, plentiful, 24-7 electrical power.
In an era when regional and airport power outages are semi-weekly news, PIT’s new microgrid seems highly desirable.
Loss of electrical power at major U.S. airports has been a recurring theme for years. Denver International Airport, the fifth largest airport by traffic in the U.S., lost electric power for several hours last week despite a redundant feed from the Denver area power grid and backup generators. In May, a large portion of Los Angeles International Airport experienced a power outage.
An extended outage at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the nation’s busiest, in 2017 created national travel chaos, causing Atlanta-based Delta Airlines
These sorts of failures inspired the management of Pittsburgh International to think about its own power several years ago.
“The  Atlanta and L.A. incidents were the trigger for us to say, ‘Let’s look at a microgrid and its viability,” Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International says.
Foot On The Gas
Cassotis and her team had a significant advantage in their calculus. Situated west-northwest of Pittsburgh, the airport sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a deep natural gas reserve running under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. Over the last decade, the Marcellus has seen a boom in exploration and extraction facilitated by fracking.
Along with Ohio and West Virginia, Pennsylvania has boosted the eastern shale gas leasing and drilling boom while states like Maryland and New York have passed up the opportunity. In 2013, the FAA granted approval for natural gas drilling on the airport grounds. PIT has plenty of space. It’s one of the top ten largest land-mass airports in the U.S., sitting on 8800 acres. Drilling by natural gas exploration and development company, CNX Resources
PIT was also in the planning stages of a new $1.4 billion terminal project. Contrary to what you might expect – and to the marketing storylines businesses perennially seek to project – the terminal will not expand passenger traffic.
“We’re actually shrinking our footprint. That doesn’t happen much,” Cassotis forthrightly says.
PIT was expanded as a mega-hub for US Airways in the early 1990s. When the carrier de-hubbed in 2004 and subsequently merged with American Airlines in 2013, the bulk of PIT’s passenger traffic went with it. Southwest Airlines
“It’s a pretty naturally divided origin and destination market rather than being a hub,” Cassotis acknowledges.
It’s also naturally endowed with clean energy beneath, a regional legacy of resource (coal) extraction and a desire to spur economic growth.
“It really all came together,” Cassotis observes. “There was natural gas coming off the property, we were seeing what was happening in LA and Atlanta, and we were looking at building our new terminal. It became evident that sustainability and lower cost along with resiliency and supporting partners could be combined in this project.”
The airport team looked at options and potential partners but didn’t specify any particular combination of resources or facilities for a microgrid according to Tom Woodrow, vice president of engineering at PIT.
The best solution ultimately presented to them by regional power-generator Essential Utilities and its subsidiary, People’s Natural Gas was a 20 megawatt natural gas-fired energy plant with five natgas-fueled generators and a solar array capable of producing three megawatts of peak power. The airport currently draws 14 megawatts at peak operation.
“The 23 megawatt solution provided us with 100%-plus of all the energy we can use with room for growth if needed. That’s one of the main things we liked about their solution. We can disconnect from the grid and operate as an island,” Woodrow says.
The microgrid is operated and maintained by the utility. It can send excess power and sell it back to the main regional electric grid via an interconnect. The solar array actually sits atop a former landfill area and while its 9,360 solar panels can generate about 13% of the microgrid’s peak power, it’s clearly natural gas which does the heavy lifting.
There are few other obvious examples of civil/commercial airport microgrids. The FAA couldn’t come up with a figure for how many such grids exist nationally by press time but Humboldt County Airport in California recently touted beginning construction of its own microgrid.
The purely solar-powered grid is more akin to backup power than an independent microgrid for the small regional airport. Local and state officials predictably lauded its renewable energy, climate change-alleviating character but its ability to power the airport and its resident U.S. Coast Guard station appears limited to 24 hours in sub-optimum conditions.
Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut has a more robust combined heat and power microgrid (CHP) which has been in operation since 2002. Like PIT, it runs on natural gas though its output is 5.8 megawatts. The microgrid has kept the airport (New England’s second largest) running during major regional power outages from a 2011 Halloween snowstorm and 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.
PIT’s installation is obviously on a different scale. While providing the airport with admirable resiliency, it would be difficult though not impossible to replicate in other places.
Roger Copeland, a principal in Dallas-based engineering firm, Jacobs’ energy and power group, says his company is seeing demand for commercial airport microgrids and has a couple of projects underway though he couldn’t share details. He acknowledges demand for microgrids is high elsewhere.
“We see a lot [of demand] in higher education and the federal space – federal air bases. We’ve done quite a few for them. Some are driven by [potential] energy savings and that brings resilience as a benefit.”
Among the challenges of erecting airport microgrids more broadly is paying for them. Power generation companies tend to look warily at such projects, contemplating land, construction and transmission costs while trying to estimate ROI. Deals must be structured correctly so that costs — and savings from the microgrid — are shared appropriately.
That’s what appears to have happened at PIT which has 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 just pays for the service, much as they pay their electric utility.
“All we do is pay [Essential Utilities
The airport has a 20 year agreement with Essential, giving it a ground lease on PIT’s land for a nominal fee. At the end of the 20 years, the grid asset can devolve back to the airport or the contract can be renewed according to PIT’s Woodrow. With the development costs borne by Essential in return for all revenue produced by the power generation all parties, including PA taxpayers who’ll see no charge, benefit.
“This cost us nothing,” Cassotis affirms. “Our job here is to be the strategic landlord. That’s how we’re looking at this. It’s an opportunity to bring together the assets of the region and put them to work for industry in a way that puts the [airport] assets on display. We love demonstrating to the airlines and our partners that we’re running more and more like a business in addition to our public utility function.”
Copeland says the MaaS model is particularly prevalent in the higher education infrastructure market. “It’s really all driven around an anchor generation resource that’s efficient and that the utility can benefit from. If they can do that, they’re willing to give that resilience as a side benefit.”
Jacobs has worked on microgrids up to 135 megawatts. Most rely on fossil fuels including natural gas as a base power source though Copeland says they’ve looked at the possibility of using JP-5 jet fuel for some aviation projects.
PIT’s management sees ample power, lower electricity cost and resiliency as highlighted marketing bullets in their drive to attract new business to the airport and the region. With a focus on making the airport campus, 3000 acres of which are available for development, a hub for additive manufacturing and AI, the airport is pitching its industrial park as “Neighborhood 91”, metaphorically connecting it with the 90 unique neighborhoods in the city of Pittsburgh.
Cassotis points out that the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are leaders in the field of additive manufacturing and development, adding synergy to the airport’s efforts and the economic renewal underway in western PA.
“If you look at how the economy of this region has diversified with a focus on higher education, financial services, energy, robotics and AI, we see that all of this is coming into the airport and it’s an opportunity to say, ‘This is Pittsburgh.”
It’s an opportunity made possible by the fortuitous combination of PIT’s location and resources. Pittsburgh International’s new independent microgrid is undoubtedly envied by regulators and major commercial airports across the country. But finding ways to duplicate it won’t be easy.