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Pittsburgh International Airport Completes Gas- And Solar-Powered Microgrid

The new microgrid at Pittsburgh International is made up of nearly 10,000 solar panels and a mini power plant that burns natural gas -- and everything, even the gas wells, is right there on airport land.
Susan Scott Peterson
90.5 WESA
The new microgrid at Pittsburgh International is made up of nearly 10,000 solar panels and a mini power plant that burns natural gas -- and everything, even the gas wells, is right there on airport land.

Pittsburgh International Airport announced the completion Wednesday of a gas- and solar-powered microgrid, the first of its kind in the world. The new microgrid will operate independently from the traditional electric grid and provide all of the energy the airport needs.

“One of the things that we like most about this project is it was able to generate 100 percent percent of all the power that we need at the airport,” said Tom Woodrow, the 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.”

Though the airport owns the land on which the microgrid sits, Peoples Gas owns and operates the facility. There was no upfront cost, though Pittsburgh International signed a 20-year contract to buy their electricity from Peoples.

“The partnerships have been key,” said Christina Cassotis, chief executive officer of Pittsburgh International. “It starts with us as a strategic landlord with a very real business need. And then we went out to the private sector and said, ‘Who can help?’ And Peoples Natural Gas was the winner of a pretty intense competition to build this. And then they brought in partners in the solar field and in the field of microgrids.”

Though the microgrid can operate independently, it is still interconnected with the larger electric grid, so if there is an on-site problem with power generation, the airport can still draw electricity from the grid. The interconnection also means the microgrid can push power out to the grid.

“Peoples [Gas] is permitted to export excess electricity to the grid that they can sell at wholesale,” Woodrow said. “It’s their decision when and if they want to do that, as long as…we always have 100 percent right of first refusal of all the electricity that we need.”

The microgrid consists of a solar farm and a natural gas facility. The nearly 10,000-panel solar installation is large and highly visible to people driving to the airport on the parkway, as well as to travelers flying in and out of Pittsburgh, making the project an emblem for renewable energy.

While the solar farm provides three megawatts of power, most of the microgrid’s energy — 20 megawatts — actually comes from natural gas. The project was made possible in part by a 2013 contract with Consol Energy permitting it to develop Marcellus Shale oil and gas wells on airport land. Consol has been drilling since 2014, and the natural gas it fracks there supplies the new microgrid generators.

Zach Barber, a clean air advocate with the environmental advocacy nonprofit Penn Environment, praised the airport microgrid project for its solar development and resilience. But he said he is concerned about the natural gas component.

“This is being marketed as a sustainability project, but any sustainability project that relies on fracking is like an umbrella with holes,” Barber said. “We know that fracking is a major source of climate change and pollution and dangerous contamination of our air and our water.…And yet that is what this project does — commits us to 20 more years of fracking.”

Without the deal with Consol to develop gas production at the airport, county executive Rich Fitzgerald says the airport would have faced “economic disaster” after the closure of the US. Airways hub in 2004 dramatically reduced the number of passengers traveling through Pittsburgh.

Woodrow says Pittsburgh International has future plans to expand the microgrid’s solar installation.

“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.”