A Southwest plane takes off over 9,360 solar panels at Pittsburgh International Airport, part of a first-of-its-kind microgrid. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

PIT Becomes First Airport to Power Itself with Natural Gas, Solar

Pittsburgh International Airport and its surrounding campus is now the first airport in the world powered by solar energy and natural gas generated right on site.

Airport officials joined by federal, state and county leaders cut the ribbon Wednesday in front of 9,360 solar panels glistening in the sun, part of a microgrid more than two years in the making.

The first-of-its kind power grid increases resilience and maximizes public safety, making PIT one of the most resilient airports in the world.

“Not even a pandemic could stop this innovation,” said Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis. “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.”

Airports across the country have been exploring ways to increase power resilience and reliability after several high-profile power outages resulted in thousands of cancelled flights and passenger disruptions. As PIT prepares to break ground on building the smartest airport in the world through its new terminal project, creating smart power infrastructure is a key step that can serve as a blueprint for others.

“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,” said 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.”

The power generated at PIT is the primary supply for the entire airport, including the terminals, airfield, Hyatt hotel and Sunoco. The airport will remain connected to the traditional electrical grid as an option for emergency or backup power if needed. The microgrid will generate power, in part, through onsite natural gas wells and solar panels spread across eight acres.

Local officials, including U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, state Sen. Devlin Robinson, state Rep. Valerie Gaydos and county Councilman Sam DeMarco, all cited the project as another example of the industry-leading innovation at PIT that has caught the attention of leaders in Washington and Harrisburg.

“We talk a lot about the natural resources we have in Western Pennsylvania, but our best resource is our people,” said Lamb, whose district covers the airport. “And I know that you guys built something here and made something happen here that your peer crews at airports across the country probably couldn’t pull off. I always think that’s our best advantage.”

The Allegheny County Airport Authority Board of Directors in 2019 awarded Peoples Natural Gas a 20-year contract to build, maintain and operate the microgrid at no cost to the airport. In addition to boosting power resiliency and redundancy, the microgrid will achieve savings on electricity costs for the airport and tenants.

In exchange for building the microgrid, the airport provided the land and agreed to buy its electricity over the next 20 years.

Crews started construction in July 2020 and completed the project on schedule even as the pandemic stalled the aviation industry.

“Essential Utilities and Peoples Gas are proud to be an integral part of the airport microgrid project,” said Christopher Franklin, chairman and chief executive officer, Essential Utilities. “We’re demonstrating how new, alternative energies like solar can be integrated with traditional power sources like natural gas. This energy solution provides the airport with a more resilient power supply, as well as reducing its emissions.”

What is a microgrid?

A microgrid is an independent electricity source that can operate autonomously while maintaining a connection to the traditional grid. It will be powered by natural gas drilled on-site by CNX Resources, in addition to gas from the interstate pipeline system and solar generation. The project will offer a more efficient, sustainable and resilient source of energy.

The microgrid will consist of five natural gas-fueled generators and nearly 10,000 solar panels, capable of producing more than 20 megawatts of electricity, the equivalent of powering more than 13,000 residential homes. The airport’s current peak demand is approximately 14 megawatts.

IMG Energy Solutions partnered with Peoples and the Airport Authority as owner and operator of the solar array and operator of the natural gas generators.

“This first-of-its kind project not only brings energy resiliency to the airport but leads this region’s transition to clean energy while creating new jobs and providing decades of clean, cost-effective energy to the airport and its tenants,” Mike Brady, CEO of IMG Energy Solutions.

Airport and elected officials marked the completion of PIT’s microgrid with a ribbon cutting ceremony on July 14 in front of more than 9,000 solar panels. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

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