Resiliency & Sustainability

Change Is in the Air: Are North American Airports Ready for the Energy Transition?

Published December 2023

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Executive Summary

Airports and the Future of Energy

Across North America, the energy transition has arrived in force. The transportation sector, which accounts for 27% of all 2022 U.S. energy demand1 and 28% of 2021 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,2 is a prime target for decarbonization efforts. Scaling zero-emissions flight remains an even thornier challenge than land-based transportation, and so for now, airports are the center of the action in the aviation energy transition. Change is in the air.

The stakes are high for airports navigating the energy transition. Energy is becoming more of a conversation around conference tables and kitchen tables alike. Managing energy’s reliability, availability, cost, and emissions are all more complex than they used to be, and airports are racing to adapt.

This report takes the pulse of North American airport operators, ranging from major hubs to regional players, and identifies options for them to meet operational and sustainability needs in a rapidly changing technology and policy landscape. The results of this survey center around three central challenges airports face when it comes to the energy transition. Many airports are facing all three at once.

  1. Power Reliability and Quality. In 2017, a half-day power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) cost Delta Airlines up to $125 million.3 More recently, power outages at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), and smaller airports such as Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) have disrupted thousands of flights.

    Despite this urgency, the results of this survey confirm that, although outages are indeed common, their costs are largely unknown. What’s more, about one-third of respondents report inadequate back-up power to critical areas.

    Of the airports surveyed:
        85% reported at least one outage per year.
    •    8% knew the cost of the outage.
    38% reported inadequate back-up power in required areas.
  2. Growing Energy Needs. Passenger and cargo traffic is rapidly bouncing back after the pandemic-era downturn. And in the long term, overall air travel is expected to double by 2040.4 Growing air traffic and increasing electrification together will drive aviation’s energy demand to new heights. For instance, one West Coast airport surveyed in this report expects its power needs over the next five years to triple.

    The results indicate that every surveyed airport indeed expects power needs to grow, and yet only a third could estimate how much electricity they would need. An even smaller number had thorough insights into their real-time energy use. There are several reasons for this, including energy modeling that’s still under development, new energy drivers such as EV charging that lack historical data, and a lack of submetering to measure electrical consumption on a more granular level.

    Of the airports surveyed:
        100% were anticipating a large terminal expansion that will drive up energy use.
        38% had a sense of how much electricity they would need to accommodate growth.
        8% had a high degree of visibility into their energy use.
        15% were very confident they could keep pace with growing demand.
  3. Decarbonization and Electrification Mandates. Airports across the country are setting firm decarbonization targets and using electrification to achieve them. Many of these mandates are unfunded despite, in effect, requiring extensive capital improvements to existing and new infrastructure. Even when airports themselves aren’t setting targets, their tenants are. Climate targets are coming from airlines, rental car agencies, logistics warehouses, and cargo carriers.

    Encouragingly, the survey results indicate clean-energy and sustainability pursuits are widespread. But it’s less clear whether there are the necessary funds, projects, and strategies in place to turn ambition into action.

    Of the airports surveyed:
        62% were electrifying airport fleets (both air- and landside).
        62% are responsible for providing electricity for tenants.
        69% are adding solar.
        92% have clean energy goals.
        54% have plans to phase out fossil generation.

The backdrop to these three challenges is the aging, increasingly capacity-constrained utility grids that airports rely on for electricity. Compared to the previous decade, the most recent decade saw 64% more power outages, in large part due to increasingly extreme weather.5 Meanwhile, in many regions of the continent, electricity demand is outstripping supply, leading to denied interconnection requests, flex alerts, and even blackouts. And, currently, about 60% of all electrons on the grid are still generated via burning fossil fuels.6 Airports reliant on electric utilities can run into 5-10-year delays for upgrading feeder stations and most likely will bear the cost of these upgrades.

Every Thorny Challenge Has Its Rose

This report doesn’t just lay out the challenges. It also shares ideas and solutions on how airport decision-makers around the continent are rising to meet them. It shares ideas from different airports on how they’re transforming the way they manage energy. It also explores a proven, step-by-step process for assessing how to meet future energy needs — via new or existing utility services, on-site energy generation, or both.

Once an accurate picture of the future need is in hand, there are two broad solutions for gaining more capacity. The first is familiar to many airports already. It involves getting the support of the utility to build out more infrastructure. The second is newer on the scene: on-site energy systems. This solution — otherwise known as a microgrid — will be covered at length because of its unfamiliarity and its unique ability to solve the three challenges laid out above. Microgrids are on-site, behind-the-meter energy systems with sources of on-site generation, storage, and advanced automation and controls. They can function alongside or independently of the grid.

To navigate the energy transition successfully, airports must think differently about their energy resources — and, perhaps, think outside the grid. The spirit of this report is to share the data and strategies of airports navigating this new era of energy complexity. Our hope is that it stimulates conversations, ideas, and above all, action. There’s no time — or energy — to waste.

Carter Morris
Executive Vice President, AAAE Services
AAAE
Juan Macias
CEO
AlphaStruxure

1  U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2023
2  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2023
3  The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 2017
4  International Air Transport Association, 2023
5  Climate Central, 2022
6  U.S. EIA, 2023


Click the button below to fill out our form so you can receive an emailed copy of the in-depth research and analysis from the consortium’s work on this exciting topic.

Access the White Paper

Resiliency & Sustainability Working Group Members

The ACT Resiliency & Sustainability Working Group has been actively supported by a range of airports and industry partners.

AlphaStruxure

AlphaStruxure

Boise Airport

Boise Airport

CLT

Charlotte Douglas International Airport

Dallas Fort Worth International Airport

Dallas Fort Worth International Airport

Greater Toronto Airport Authority

Greater Toronto Airports Authority

LAWA

Los Angeles World Airports

McFarland-Johnson

McFarland-Johnson, Inc.

PHL

Philadelphia International Airport

PHX

Phoenix Sky Harbor Internatioanl Airport

SAT

San Antonio International Airport

SJC

San Jose Mineta International Airport

Sacramento International Airport

Sacramento International Airport

Syracuse Hancock International Airport

Syracuse Hancock International Airport

Tampa International Airport

Tampa International Airport

Questions?

Contact Jeremy Valcich at [email protected] to learn more.