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Why Resilient Energy Can Be a Power Move for Airports

October 15, 2021      

Tags: Aviation

Plane taking off.

Energy resilience is about more than just providing power; it’s a recognition of critical infrastructure and operations whereby failure would result in major impacts to operations.

As airports move away from fossil fuels and transition to electric-focused fleets, heating, cooling and lighting, a significant vulnerability is created with grid power. The resilience of electrical generation and distribution has become even more critical at our nation’s airports.

What happens if the grid cannot keep up with demand?

In July, an article in Forbes reported how electrical power loss at major U.S. airports has been a recurring theme for years. Denver International Airport lost power for several hours earlier this summer despite a redundant feed from the Denver area power grid and backup generators. In May, a large portion of Los Angeles International Airport experienced a power outage.

An extended outage at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in 2017 created national travel chaos, causing Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines to cancel 1,400 flights, costing the carrier an estimated $25 million.

Storms that ravaged the Texas electrical grid this winter challenged many airports in the state to deal with a loss of operating capabilities that many were not prepared for. The sustained loss of power incurred past the storm days has given us all a moment of pause on whether whole campus emergency power – and the once-unfathomable price tag that accompanies it – is now a necessity.

The Texas storms should be giving all airports some cause to look at their current electrical systems, vulnerabilities and how to attain resilience. But will solving a problem today by installing a large diesel generator cause even more damage to a long-term plan to attract a tenant that is targeting carbon neutrality?

It is time for airports to plan and take prudent action that is aligned with their growth strategies and revenue model.

PEER Sets a New Standard

Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal (PEER) is a newer certification developed by the Green Building Certification Institute that focuses on electrical and energy resiliency. Similar to LEED, which concentrates on sustainability and building performance, PEER is a rating based on an evaluation of an entire power system.

By examining power systems across four outcome categories, PEER allows all stakeholders to set the standard for system performance that best meets the needs of the customer. The four categories are:

  • Reliability and Resiliency: Assesses the reliability of electricity delivery and aims to reduce injuries, interruptions, and power quality issues.
  • Energy Efficiency and Environment: Assesses the environmental impact of electricity generation and use. The category is supported by energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies.
  • Operational Effectiveness: Assesses the costs associated with electricity and asset utilization and aims to reduce capital spending, operation expenses, and corrective maintenance costs.
  • Customer Contributions: Assesses the contribution to grid service, investment, and innovation. The category seeks to address grid service capabilities, data access, supply choice, and incentives.

While PEER was launched in 2015, there are a few more than a dozen PEER-certified operations in the world. Only a handful of them – including the University of Texas at Austin, the City of Chattanooga and the Ameren Microgrid in Champagne, Illinois – are in the U.S. To date, no American airport is PEER-certified.

But PEER could make a huge difference for airports.

Using the PEER standard, airports can work toward developing a roadmap for world-class power and energy systems. This process can help an airport improve the reliability and resilience of its power supply, increase the energy efficiency of its infrastructure, reduce its environmental footprint, augment its operations and safety with smart technologies, and remain on the cutting edge of electric grid innovation.

Where To Start

Let’s consider for a moment what airports do better than almost any other major industry: plan. Airport master plans take years of data and experience and use them to forecast out the needs of an airport to not only survive but thrive.

So far, the shift to electric vehicles, buses and ground service equipment (GSE) has been at the pace of an airport’s discretion and available funding from Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) and Voluntary Airport Low Emissions (VALE) program grants. But that decision may soon shift beyond an airport’s control as the global economy shifts towards a faster response to curb carbon emissions – driven by climate change, the Paris Accord, and individual corporate commitments.

Airlines and cargo companies will certainly push for changes to our industry ahead of any federal regulations. Fortune 500 companies operate on a global scale, so changes made to meet regulations, financial incentives or insurance requirements in one part of the globe are all but guaranteed to impact the rest of their supply chain as well.

Preparing for your customers’ needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide needed services like electrification of fleets are going to require serious modifications to civil and electrical infrastructure to complete.

PEER is just one tool to structure a power resilience assessment. Regardless of the method, focusing on energy and airport resilience can help ensure incidents experienced in the past that halt facility operations don’t happen again.

This is an opportunity for airports to continue their leadership in sustainability, resiliency and reducing their carbon footprint. Approaches to operating high-performance power and energy systems like PEER will not be without its challenges, but by having prudent conversations about goals and timelines, an airport could position itself to act instead of having to react.

Airport authorities must plan, enact, review, adjust and continue moving forward in making their facilities and campuses more resilient.

RS&H can help you make progress. Learn more about our aviation service areas: environmental planning, master planning, environmental stewardship and resiliency.

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