A microgrid project pairing natural gas with solar power is taking shape at Pittsburgh International Airport, with the installation expected to be the primary source of electricity for the property by the summer of 2021.

Construction of the microgrid (Figure 1) began a few weeks ago with site preparation work, which included rerouting an electrical line and removing old pavement. Crews on July 20 moved a large drill rig (Figure 2) into place to start work on the foundation. The project is considered a key component of the airport’s Terminal Modernization Program, which includes work to make the facility safer, and to enhance power reliability and resilience.

1. This graphic shows the set-up for the microgrid at Pittsburgh International Airport. Source: Pittsburgh International Airport

“This project is about improving public safety through resiliency and redundancy in electrical power,” Tom Woodrow, vice president of engineering for Pittsburgh International Airport, told POWER. “The project was initiated in mid-2017 and as the concept unfolded in the wake of some major power outages at other airports, we moved full steam ahead in early 2018 to develop a microgrid.”

Woodrow said the project is moving forward despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has delayed some energy infrastructure projects in the U.S. and around the world. “Overall the pandemic has not slowed our progress and we broke ground this week,” he told POWER.

The microgrid will include five gas-fired generators, with 20 MW of generation capacity, and about 7,800 solar panels, with a total 3 MW of generation capacity, covering eight acres.

Primary Power Source

Officials said the airport’s peak demand today is about 14 MW. The airport’s plan is to use the microgrid as its primary power source, while remaining connected to the traditional grid if backup or emergency power is needed.

2. A drill rig is being used to core an estimated 90 holes as part of the foundation work for the new microgrid at Pittsburgh International Airport. Courtesy: Beth Hollerich, Pittsburgh International Airport’s BlueSky PIT

“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 in a statement. “This project will bring power resiliency and redundancy to enhance safety and ensure continued operations for the traveling public.”

The microgrid is expected to lower the airport’s energy costs. As Woodrow mentioned, it also is designed to help avoid power outages that have disrupted operations at other airports in recent years, including at Los Angeles International, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, and Reagan International in Washington, D.C.

Peoples Natural Gas Financing, Building Project

The microgrid is being built by Peoples Natural Gas. The Pittsburgh-based utility also will operate and maintain the facility. Officials said the project will provide power for both the Landside and Airside terminals, along with hangars, maintenance facilities, and the airfield. It also is expected to serve a hotel and gas station on the airport property.

Woodrow told POWER, “The cost to the ACAA [Allegheny County Airport Authority] is zero. The project is being financed completely by Peoples Natural Gas and we have entered into [a] 20-year agreement to purchase electricity at agreed-upon rates.”

Microgrids increasingly are being deployed to power commercial and industrial sites, particularly at facilities considered critical infrastructure.

“This microgrid could certainly be a model for other larger commercial or industrial sites but each project will have its own design, regulatory, and permitting issues to address,” said Woodrow. “Our project will use both natural gas-fired generators and solar energy.”

Design of the solar array (Figure 3) is about 75% complete, with construction of the solar project expected to begin in the fall. Officials said the current schedule calls for the entire project to be completed in the second quarter of 2021.

3. The solar array for the microgrid at Pittsburgh International Airport will sit on land near the exit from the interstate to the airport. Courtesy: Pittsburgh International Airport

The airport is installing new electrical switchgear to support the microgrid’s infrastructure. Woodrow said having the switchgear in place “ahead of the microgrid tie-in will eliminate the need to disconnect the microgrid from the old switchgear and then re-connect into the new one, which would be more costly and inefficient.”

Woodrow said Pittsburgh-based PJ Dick is the general contractor for the project. Subcontractors currently working on the microgrid include Sargent Electric, Kirby Electric, and Menard. 

Want to learn more about microgrids? Here’s additional coverage from POWER:

The POWER Interview: Microgrids Open New Business Models

Micro Generation with Macro Possibilities

Where is the Microgrid Market Headed?

Advanced Microgrid a Natural Fit for Wisconsin Project

Register to watch POWER’s webinar,Microgrids—Development and Design,” part of our DEC Digital series and our Distributed Energy Conference.

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).