MIAMI – For our Innovation series, we take a look at Pittsburgh International Airport’s (PIT) goal to become the first major airport to be entirely powered by its own microgrid. As a step closer to meeting that goal, crews at PIT recently installed five 100-ton natural-gas-fired generators that will help power the plant.

A microgrid is an independent source of energy that can function independently. Essentially, it provides reliability and resilience to a facility such as an airport because it has the potential to accommodate critical loads in the event of a conventional grid outage or any other operational threat.

The generators, which now sit in a row on a one-acre pad at PIT, will soon power the entire airport facility. A year ago, airport officials first announced plans for the microgrid, and crews broke ground on the project this summer. The facility will be powered by the aforementioned generators and more than 9,000 solar panels.

Set-up for the microgrid at Pittsburgh International Airport. Source: Pittsburgh International Airport

The Microgrid as the Primary Source of Power


When completed, the microgrid will be capable of generating enough energy to power more than 13,000 households, equivalent to more than 23 megawatts of electricity. The project is expected to reduce the cost of electricity to the airport and its tenants.

Thus, the microgrid will serve as the primary power source of electricity for the airport, including both terminals, the airfield, the Hyatt hotel, and the Sunoco gas station. PIT will also remain connected to the traditional electrical grid for emergency or backup power if needed.

According to the airport’s website, blueslypit.com, this sustainability effort will make PIT one of the most site-hardened airports in the world.

The 100-ton Jenbacher natural gas-fired generators will be produce 20 megawatts of electricity. Photo: Beth Hollerich

Comments from PIT’s Vice President of Engineering


Tom Woodrow, Vice President of Engineering at the airport, explained that plans for the microgrid came after a number of major airports experienced power blackouts that resulted in flight cancellations and other disruptions.

“In seeing other airports experience outages, we realized the value of having resiliency here at PIT,” Woodrow said. “The value of maintaining operations at the airport is hard to quantify. It’s priceless, really.”

On September 30, 2020, PIT broke the news of the newly-installed generators on Twitter, saying, “Next summer, these 100-ton natural gas-fueled generators & 9,000 solar panels will power the entire airport.”

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

Who Is Involved in the Project?


Pittsburgh-based Peoples Natural Gas, an Essential Utilities company, is tasked with building, operating and maintaining the microgrid at no cost to the airport other than electrical bills.

In addition to Peoples and construction company PJ Dick, other companies working on the project include LLI Engineering, Northeast Energy Systems, IMG Energy Services, EIS Solar, Sheffler and Company, McK Construction, Ran-Den Excavating, Sargent Electric Company and McKamish Inc.

“I’ve never worked on such a compact project with such a small footprint that generates this much power,” said Rich Celani, superintendent of the project for PJ Dick.

The airport microgrid will be powered by five natural gas-fired generators and more than 9,000 solar panels. Photo: Beth Hollerich

Tasks to Complete the Microgrid


Since the installation of the Jenbacher generators, workers have almost finished the first phase of construction, involving the installation of generators and the supply of natural gas. “Every time you come here, something new has been installed,” Celani said.

The next step is to connect the exhaust systems to the generators and begin work on the piping and the wiring. The last phase of the project would include connecting wiring via underground lines from the site to the main airport substation.

Simultaneously, crews will begin working to install the solar panels at a different location that will provide additional energy for the airport’s facilities. The microgrid is expected to be operational by June 2021.

PIT’s beekeeping program has expanded to include nine apiaries that house around 110 colonies—adding up to nearly 4 million honeybees. (Photo by Steve Repasky)

PIT’s Beekeeping Program


Last week, the Department of Environmental Protection of Pennsylvania and Governor Tom Wolf honored PIT with a Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence for its airport apiaries.

After a massive bee swarm on the wing of the aircraft disrupted a Delta Air Lines (DL) flight to PIT in August 2012—at the time, the fourth swarm at the airport, officials collaborated with a local beekeeper to set up an on-site apiary program. In May of that same year, almost 30,000 bees had landed on the Taxiway-C light.

Since the program began, wildlife administrator Ben Shertzer and licensed master beekeeper and owner of Meadow Sweet Apiaries Steve Repasky have extended the program to include nine apiaries that house about 110 colonies—up to nearly 4 million honeybees, according to PIT.

With vast quantities of unused land, airports are excellent sanctuaries for the declining honeybee population, which has been threatened by stress, including exposure to pesticides, parasites, and poor nutrition.

“Beekeeping is done everywhere, but our apiaries are unique because they are on airport property. That provides a buffer from the factors that cause grief for other beekeepers,” Repasky explained. Honeybees pollinate 80% of flowering crops—about one-third of all consumed food, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

In addition to maintaining the endangered honeybee population, the program has proved useful in reducing disruptions similar to that of the 2012 DL flight.

Maintaining the airport apiaries is a year-round activity and the program is closely monitored. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

A Symbiotic Relationship


In exchange for the use of airport land for beekeeping, Repasky provides free airport services to help deter and eliminate swarms. The airfield is lined with a variety of swarm traps that are constantly controlled. Since the start of the program, PIT has seen a decline in bee swarms on the airfield.

In addition to Repasky’s work, PIT closely tracks apiaries, with the aid of a USDA biologist, and has collaborated with local research groups and universities to provide data and perform swarm research to promote the welfare of honeybees.

Pittsburgh International is one of the first US airports to have added apiculture or apiculture services over the past few years. Others include Portland International in Oregon, Chicago, O’Hare and Midway, Seattle-Tacoma, Indianapolis, and St. Louis Lambert, among others.


Featured image: Pittsburgh International Airport aerial view. Photo: Wiki Commons

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