Pittsburgh International Airport made history this month when it became the first major airport in the world to be powered entirely on its own.
Back in 2018, the Allegheny County Airport Authority shared its ambitious goal of living entirely off the resources on its own land. Just 3 years later, the Pennsylvania airport is now responsible for its very own microgrid, an independent electricity source capable of fueling the whole airport.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that while many airports use a microgrid to power sections of their buildings, the Pittsburgh International Airport grid is the world’s first to be “completely powered by solar and natural gas.”
The microgrid will provide the airport with a more reliable, sustainable source of energy while cutting the cost of electricity. The grid utilizes natural gas previously harnessed by CNX Resources Corporation, a natural gas company based in Pittsburgh that was leasing airport land. In addition to five natural gas-fueled generators, the grid relies on almost 10,000 solar panels.
“One of the things that we like most about this project is it was able to generate 100 percent of all the power that we need at the airport,” explained Tom Woodrow, Pittsburgh International Airport’s vice president of engineering. “So we always have spare capacity in the event of a future growth, or if they have a problem with one of the generators. We’ll always have the resiliency and the redundancy that we want.”
The grid is designed to handle the overwhelming electricity needs of a major airport. At its peak demand, the airport uses roughly 14 megawatts of electricity. The new generators alone are capable of an astounding 20 megawatts.
“Pittsburgh International Airport is now one of the most site-hardened public facilities in the world while at the same time becoming more sustainable,” Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis said in a statement. “That’s a tribute to the innovative culture of our team, and we hope this project can be a model across the industry.”
In addition to cutting costs and promoting sustainability, one of the motivations for switching to a microgrid was increased reliability. Airports across the country have fallen victim to high-profile power outages, resulting in canceled flights and stranded travelers.
An onsite power source helps protect from power disruptions, as it operates independently, regardless of what happens to the city’s traditional grids. However, the airport’s microgrid remains connected to the larger electric grid as a precaution, in the event that something happens to the airport’s own energy source.
This project came to fruition just three years after announcing the plans for it, and that success has inspired everyone involved to continue dreaming big.
“There’s twice as much land,” Woodrow said. “Next week, we’re going to start talking about how we can expand this facility to generate even more solar and use it in other parts of our campus.”