Future gas-solar microgrid lifting Pittsburgh airport into energy independence

Photo courtesy PIA.

During a time of such disruption on both economic and health levels, it’s nice to hear of a project in which so many things aligned so quickly.

The project leaders might disagree with that term “quickly” but they can’t deny how timing has worked out.

Such is the case for the microgrid currently under construction for the Pittsburgh International Airport system. Work just began on the hybrid gas-fired and solar power generation system which will supply the busy airport and protect it from potential outages in the overall grid. The 23-MW project will feature five 4-MW Jenbacher natural gas engines and gensets joined by nearly 7,800 solar panels installed on eight acres of a former landfill.

“We can totally disconnect from the grid and operate this in island mode,” Tom Woodrow, vice president of engineering at the airport, said in an interview with Power Engineering. “The whole project is about public safety, redundancy and resiliency-that’s the number one goal here.”

Pittsburg International Airport is teaming with utility People’s Gas and gas producer CNX Energy, among others, to bring the three-year plant into reality. Construction on the gas-fired energy plant has already begun, while work on the 3-MW solar phase will commence this fall. Completion and commissioning is schedule for second quarter 2021.

Nearly all of the five Jenbacher engines will be operating full-time to provide the airport power first and then route the excess back into the PJM Interconnection. Sometimes gas pipeline access is a tricky thing, particularly for an airport, but this one is situated right in the middle of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale and has ample supply not so far from the runway.

In fact, Allegheny County has one of the few airports with a natural gas well on-site.

“There is no shortage of natural gas in Pennsylvania,” Woodrow noted. “One of the goals is to support the local natural gas industry. . . We didn’t need to build much much additional natural gas transmission pipelines.”

Once the microgrid is online, it will help to avoid the kinds of power outages that have wreaked havoc at airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Los Angeles International and Washington Reagan International. Officials said it will also save money on electrical costs. The airport’s microgrid will become its primary power source, but it will remain connected to the traditional electrical grid as an option for emergency or backup power, if required.

“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.”

Safety is a high consideration beyond even the air traffic and energy resiliency concerns. Although planning for the airport microgrid began three years ago, no one with the project could have foreseen the arrival of COVID-19 and its negative impact on workforces and construction.

Fortunately, the state’s moratorium on non-essential construction was lifted prior to the microgrid’s scheduled starting date.

“The project is adhering to all CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements,” Woodrow said. “We would not have been able to stay on schedule, but restriction on construction were lifted in the perfect time period.”

The facility, which will be built, operated and maintained by Peoples Natural Gas, will power both the Landside and Airside terminals, the hangars and maintenance facilities, the airfield, the Hyatt hotel and a Sunoco gas station.

(Rod Walton is content director for Power Engineering and POWERGEN International. He can be reached at 918-831-9177 and rod.walton@claronevents.com).

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