Pittsburgh International Airport began construction this week of what it says will be the first microgrid that fully powers a major US airport.
With permits and regulatory approvals in hand, Peoples Natural Gas is installing a microgrid that will include five natural gas fired generators on airport property, and nearly 7,800 solar panels on eight nearby acres.
After it’s completed next summer, the microgrid will act as the primary power source for the Pittsburgh airport with the electric grid serving as backup. The gas-fired generators will provide 20 MW and the solar field about 3 MW, exceeding the airport’s peak demand of 14 MW.
“Part of our mission is to be a world leader in aviation innovation and this project is about powering airports into the future,” said Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis. “This project will bring power resiliency and redundancy to enhance safety and ensure continued operations for the traveling public.”
Several other airports in the US are in various stages of exploring or developing microgrids, a trend that began after the Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta — the world’s busiest airport at the time — lost power for 11 hours in late 2017 because of an electrical malfunction. Since then, several other airports have faced costly power outages.
Now microgrids are in the works at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport in Tennessee and Redwood Coast Airport in California, among others.
Interest in microgrids by airports is not confined to the US. In England, London City Airport is developing a microgrid that will nearly double the size of the airport’s electricity distribution infrastructure. The microgrid is part of the airport’s broader $630.5 million development program.
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In Pittsburgh, Peoples Natural Gas won the contract to build, operate and maintain the microgrid through a competitive process that drew 64 responses from a request for expressions.
Peoples says it can deliver the project at no cost to the Pittsburgh airport because it will earn back its investment in the microgrid through gas sales to the airport. Peoples is investing $25 million in the gas generators and $5 million in the solar power installation.
The crew began minor site prep construction a few weeks ago, including removing old pavement and relocating an electrical line. On Monday, they moved an 80-foot drill into place to begin foundation work.
“Even during these very challenging months, this project has remained on track, which is a credit to everyone who has been working on it and all of its components,” said Tom Woodrow, vice president of engineering at the airport.
The airport expects to begin construction of the solar field in the fall, and complete it, along with the natural gas units, in the second quarter of 2021.
Pittsburgh also is installing new electrical switchgear for the Landside and Airside Terminal to support the microgrid.
“Having the switchgear replaced ahead of the microgrid tie-in will eliminate the need to disconnect the microgrid from the old switchgear and then reconnect into the new one, which would be more costly and inefficient,” Woodrow said.
Airport officials said bids for the switchgear, which came in at nearly $2 million under budget, reflect a favorable and competitive construction market in the Pittsburgh region.
The Pittsburgh airport serves nearly 10 million passengers annually on 17 carriers.
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