It takes a lot of energy to run Pittsburgh International Airport, but none of it comes from the traditional electrical grid that powers the region.
Instead, the airport’s power comes from its microgrid, a first-of-its-kind model that combines solar and natural gas to power the terminals and airport campus.
“We are the first in the world to do this,” said Tom Woodrow, senior vice president of Engineering and Intelligence Infrastructure at ACAA. “There are other airports that have similar systems in place but they’re not able to power 100 percent of their airport the way we are.”
Five natural gas-fired generators and nearly 10,000 solar panels make it all possible in what airport and utility leaders alike call a demonstration of sustainability and resiliency.
The microgrid was built during the pandemic at no cost to taxpayers. In 2019, the airport awarded Peoples Natural Gas a 20-year contract to build, maintain and operate the microgrid at no cost to the airport.
In exchange for building the microgrid, the airport provided the land and agreed to buy the microgrid’s electricity over the 20-year term. IMG Energy Solutions partnered with Peoples and the airport as owner and operator of the solar array and operator of the natural gas generators.
“Resiliency means trying to keep the power on when the utility is not available,” said Jeffrey Nehr, vice president of Business Development at Peoples. “Only it’s the flip for this because the microgrid is always running, utilities backing up the microgrid, then you have your own emergency generator as a backup.”
February 2, 2022, marked eight months of being 100 percent on the microgrid. That’s more than half a year of passengers and flights depending on the electricity in the terminal generated on site.
“We’ve generated approximately, and consumed, 60 million kilowatt hours of electricity which equates to approximately 8,000 residential homes,” Woodrow said.
World changing idea
PIT’s microgrid has captured national attention. Forbes Magazine said PIT’s microgrid is “tough to duplicate.” Airports are contacting PIT asking how the team did it, and the microgrid has won multiple awards including the Innovation Award from Airports Council International and Fast Company Magazine’s World Changing Idea award.
“It’s a great testament to the work ethic of Pittsburgh, the engineers, the contractors and our staff, which really did the heavy lifting to make it work,” said Woodrow.
The sustainability of the solar panels continues to be a popular feature.
“There aren’t a lot of solar arrays in this part of Pennsylvania, so the innovation is that we are starting to bring clean energy into the state,” Mike Brady, CEO of IMG Energy Solutions, said.
“On a cloudy day you’re getting solar radiation. It’s just less than full expectation, so on a bright, sunny day, you’re maxing out the production of the solar array.”
Officials said the microgrid provides an additional layer of security because if the power from the traditional grid goes out, the airport lights remain on.
“The amount of power we put at the generation site, we can actually stand this place up entirely with the power out and you would never know it,” he added.
Since going fully operational in July 2021, PIT’s microgrid has generated and consumed nearly 60 million kilowatt hours of electricity which equates to about 8,000 residential homes. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)