Pittsburgh International Airport Becomes First Airport
Completely Powered By Solar and Natural Gas
by Amanda Waltz
August 3, 2021
The Pittsburgh International Airport recently made history by becoming the first airport in the world to be completely powered by natural gas and solar energy.
During a ceremony on July 14, PIT officially switched on its microgrid, described in a press release as an “independent electricity source that can operate autonomously while maintaining a connection to the traditional grid.” The microgrid consists of five generators, all fueled by natural gas drilled on-site by CNX Resources, as well as 9,360 solar panels spread across eight acres.
Besides lowering PIT’s dependence on carbon-causing fossil fuels, the microgrid is also expected to significantly decrease energy operational costs and allow the airport, which claims to serve nearly 10 million passengers annually on 17 carriers, to be more self-reliant.
“Our region has innovation in its DNA, and the construction of this microgrid reflects the work that has been done at the airport to maximize public safety and sustainability,” says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “When you’re coming in for a landing and you see this huge solar array, it sends a signal that the Pittsburgh region is moving forward when it comes to sustainability, dealing with climate change and dealing with resiliency.”
PIT claims that the microgrid is capable of producing more than 20 megawatts of electricity and will serve as the primary power supply for the entire airport, including the terminals, airfield, Hyatt hotel, and Sunoco gas station. The airport’s current peak demand is estimated at around 14 megawatts.
While planning the microgrid, officials estimated that the project would save PIT more than $500,000 in the first year alone.
The microgrid was built and will be maintained and operated, by the energy company Peoples Natural Gas at no cost to PIT. In exchange for building the microgrid, the airport provided the land and agreed to buy its electricity over the next 20 years.
The airport will also remain connected to the traditional electrical grid as an option during an emergency or if backup power is needed.
The microgrid did not come easily, however. The project took two years to put together, with crews starting construction in July 2020 at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic when travelers were grounded and the aviation industry was struggling.
“Not even a pandemic could stop this innovation,” says Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis in a press release. “PIT is now one of the most site-hardened public facilities in the world while at the same time becoming more sustainable. That’s a tribute to the innovative culture of our team, and we hope this project can be a model across the industry.”
The microgrid comes at a time when airports across the United States have sought solutions after a number of outages this year. PIT suffered an outage in May due to what it cited in a tweet as “electrical testing” and emergency lights being activated. Though the outage lasted about 12 minutes, it caused some delays for passengers in the security line. Another outage followed in July, one day before the microgrid was set to debut.
But the outage issues at PIT seem minor compared to other major airports across the country. For example, Los Angeles International Airport saw a major loss of power in 2019 that led to passengers being stranded after 50 flights were canceled, according to CNBC. LAX then suffered another outage in 2020.
Seeing the effect of power outages on LAX, as well as Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, was a “main driver in deciding to build a microgrid on airport property,” says Cassotis.
PIT stated that other major U.S. airports have also started looking at microgrids, including LAX, and Atlanta, as well as San Diego and Denver International Airport. A microgrid is currently powering the TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK airport.
As other airports, and the Federal Aviation Administration, continue to explore ways to make flying more sustainable, PIT hopes that its new microgrid will act as an inspiration.
"Pittsburgh International Airport is now one of the most site-hardened public facilities in the world while at the same time becoming more sustainable,” says Cassotis. “That's a tribute to the innovative culture of our team, and we hope this project can be a model across the industry.”