Flying High: Energy Efficiency, Renewables and Airports

April 29, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

airportAirports are boring places for people waiting for delayed flights or in long lines at security checkpoints. Among many other groups, including kids with dreams of Disney (or grandma), inveterate travelers – and energy managers – airports are dramatic places to spend time.

Airports are unique places for energy managers. David Bannard, a partner in the law firm of Foley and Lardner LLP, said that there are three unique energy and renewable elements in airport design and retrofit: The ways in which they can leverage renewables, their special energy needs and the complex regulatory and financial oversight under which they are governed. “I think a number of things make an airport a special type of campus,” said Bannard, who is the co-author (with Stephen Barrett and Philip DeVita) of “Developing a Business Case for Renewable Energy at Airports.”

The use of renewables at airports — the main topic of the report – tracks to a great extent with other sectors, but in important ways is unique. For instance, Bannard said, windmills are not an option for an airport both because of possible radar shadows and, of course, potential interference with the airplanes.

On the other hand, solar voltaics can be a great fit for airports: Big terminals have big roofs that can support many solar panels. It isn’t straightforward, however: The FAA has issued a tool to help planners determine if solar panels in particular locations presents glare problems for pilots or controllers. Obviously, extraordinarily great care must be taken. Geothermal power has no such challenges, and  Bannard said that it can be an excellent source of energy for airports – particularly for long-lived projects such as new terminals.

The bottom line is that renewable are a growing factor in airport design. “We are seeing renewables incorporated into the planning process from the very beginning,” Banner said. “The idea is not to hang it on as an afterthought.”

Energy system priorities at airports are similar to elsewhere — with a twist. The goal in architecting these systems is simple: Keep the tower and the runway lights operating. This controls how renewables and storage assets are deployed, Barnard said. Like hospitals, backup power literally is a matter of life and death. “An airport needs to be extremely resilient,” he said. “We looked at the benefits of renewables on site and creating mini-grid, if you will. Renewable resources can help keep it up and running even if there are catastrophic failures in the grid serving the airport.”

Another difference is how the work gets done. It’s not surprising that airports are heavily regulated. Construction and the way in which costs are recovered must pass muster with the FAA. Financing also is heavily dependent upon the airlines using the facility. Some airports, for instance, have financial structures in which the tenants – the airlines – pick up the table for revenue shortfalls. In such cases, the tenants representing the most landings have a seat at the table alongside management when capital projects are discussed. “You’ve got a large group of stakeholders,” Bannard said.

Despite the eccentricities in need and executive, it all is working. Bannard said that airports are changing dramatically. One example is in Los Angeles. “The new international terminal at LAX is not only a beautiful design but makes great use of passive light to lower the energy use during daylight hours,” he said.

The changes are not only in new construction. Existing airports – many of which consume prodigious amounts of energy — are changing with the times. “A lot of terminal retrofit programs are including energy efficiency as well,” Bannard said. “Lighting, HVAC, those kinds of things. We are seeing a lot of facilities that were built at the beginning of space age that need a lot of sprucing up.”

The report was released this month. The report is part of a series released by the Airport Cooperative Research Project. The project is conducted by the National Academy of Sciences with funding from the FAA.

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