Solar array that feeds into the airport's microgrid. Photo courtesy of PIT.

This week, Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) became the first airport in the world to be completely powered independently by a microgrid, using natural gas and solar power created on PIT property.

The airport was selected by Fast Company as one of 2020’s Most Innovative Companies, before the microgrid had even gone live — citing other groundbreaking work, such as Presley’s Place for travelers with autism and other sensory issues.

The microgrid is something the airport had been studying for several years, but the December 2017 power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta — among the world’s busiest — put the problem of maintaining consistent power in stark relief.

“It caused a whole lot of problems across the East Coast,” says Tom Woodrow, vice president of engineering for PIT. “Nobody can ever quantify the actual financial impact of that outage.”

So they got to work.

There were 16 initial applicants vying to build the microgrid. In 2019, the project was awarded to Peoples Natural Gas — for a 20-year contract to build, maintain and operate the microgrid at no cost to the airport.

Ribbon-cutting event for the new microgrid. Photo courtesy of PIT.

Not only does the microgrid make the airport immune to problems with the greater power grid, it will also create a savings on electricity for the airport and its tenants, such as the Hyatt Hotel and Sunoco.

“I’m extremely proud that the airport is utilizing nearly 10,000 solar panels as a source of sustainable energy,” says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “It, along with the other mix of energy generated at the airport, continues to position this facility as an industry leader.”

Natural gas wells drilled on airport ground — and five natural gas-fueled generators — along with the solar panels, will give PIT more than enough power needed, even as the giant multibillion-dollar terminal modernization project proceeds. Peak demand is currently 14 megawatts; the microgrid delivers 20 megawatts of electricity.

‘We have 100% right of first refusal on any electricity that we would ever need,” says Woodrow. “In the event that you have any growth within the campus — which we are expecting with a new terminal in the next three, four years — we have some breathing room, in terms of capacity.”

People’s Gas is permitted to generate excess electricity, notes Woodrow, and “send it to the grid and get paid for that at wholesale rates.”

Other airports are working on microgrids and related technologies, especially solar power. They are mostly smaller regional airports in the West. This is the only one that can meet 100% of its own electrical demand.

“We can, we can do that, and then some,” says Woodrow. “And we can disconnect from the grid completely. “We certainly believe that gives us some competitive advantage.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.